JCJ ~ Baxendale /Allardice /Lovell-Smith

As our local pandemic restrictions were lifted, so our spirits rose, and the easing brought us, welcome travellers, from Wellington. It felt like our old lives were creeping back, but we should not underestimate how difficult these lockdowns have been for musicians. They are performing again, but with fewer venues, and reduced availability of flights. To top that there is the perpetual hassle of finding affordable accommodation. Because this is a new reality, music lovers need to redouble their commitment; religiously attending gigs, purchasing albums and getting the word about town. Luckily, Jazz audiences get that and there was a solid audience on Wednesday. 

The Band is named JCJ, which may or may not be a play on Auckland’s CJC Jazz Club; it does, however, align with the initials of the co-leaders forenames: Jasmine Lovell-Smith, Callum Allardice and Jake Baxendale. Together they represent a formidable presence on the bandstand with their international experience, various awards and accolades. In addition, the gig leaned heavily on their much-vaunted compositional skills. All have appeared on successful albums but never together as a co-led unit.

The soprano is Lovell-Smith’s primary horn and it shows. She is dextrous and inventive, she conveys deep emotion or surprises, but of equal appeal is her tone. There is a depth to it and because of that, she can move from the reflective to the edgy as naturally as breathing. When you hear her playing a ballad, it is tempting to think, how beautiful — that’s her forte then; but she will play completely free on the next number. I have heard her in a free ensemble and she’s as comfortable there as when tugging at the heartstrings with a lovely folksy ballad. 

Baxendale like his co-leaders is Wellington-based and we have seen him in a variety of visiting bands since the Creative Jazz Club’s earliest days. Aucklanders will likely associate him with ‘The JAC’ ‘Antipodes’ or ‘The Troubles’, but he has fronted or played in a number of Wellington bands. He is primarily regarded as an alto player, but on this gig, he played mainly bass clarinet. The instruments earthy underpinning, providing a lush cushion beneath the airy registers of the soprano and guitar.  

Allardice has had a long and fruitful association with Baxendale. They often share a bandstand, they have toured together, and both have won prestigious awards. I have always liked his tone on guitar, which is best described as silken. The first time I heard him perform there was an unmistakeable Rosenwinkel influence, but now I am hearing an original voice. His compositional skills have always been a forte and these were very much in evidence during this gig. 

The set opened with a gorgeous number by Lovell-Smith. It was titled ‘leaves of grass’ and its Whitman reference was apt. Whitman was the bravest of poets and a favourite with Jazz composers (‘I Sing the Body Electric’ Weather Report or tributes by Fred Hersch). And this was not the only literary reference by Lovell-Smith as a later tune was titled ‘The Pillow Book’ — this had an appropriately Japanese vibe.  Her other tune ‘Song for May’ is a stunner. I have heard it before as it is on her New York album ‘Towering Poppies’.  I would have put it up as a video, but a music stand had obliterated all view of her (note to artists: if you are being filmed, angle the music stands sideways or keep them low).  

Allardice’s compositions were as intriguing as ever, his moody ‘Dark Love’ and especially his upbeat tune with a beautifully memorable intro titled ‘Peaceful’. Baxendale brought some great tunes as well, and as he often does, he injected some off-beat humour. A tune titled ’Sleep (a glimpse of Plimpse)’ recounted a guilt-wracked dream. His tune ‘The Test’ was all that remained, of a failed attempt to break into the fantasy gaming genre (I think that I got that right). It was free-ranging and delightful and I have put that up as a video clip.

The pick-up rhythm section were Aucklanders. All three have been delighting Auckland audiences for years. To have them playing together and bouncing off a Wellington lineup was a rare treat. Firstly, Crystal Choi, who never puts a foot wrong and who is one of Auckland’s most inventive pianists. She is similar to her bass playing friend and bandmate, Eamon Edmundson Wells. Both lean heavily toward the avant-garde. On drums, there was Julien Dyne. Dyne is a powerhouse drummer and his beyond-genre approach allows him to excel in any given situation.  These three are the other reason that I put up ‘The Test’ video clip. This is a space that the Aucklanders relish, and the Wellingtonians matched them note for note. A little freedom never hurts a gig. 

JCJ were Jasmine Lovell-Smith (soprano saxophone), Jake Baxendale (alto saxophone & bass clarinet), Callum Allardice (guitar) with – Crystal Choi (piano), Eamon Edmundson Wells (bass) and Julien Dyne (drums). The gig was held at Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, K’Road, Auckland October 7, 2020.

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. Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz – check it out.

Jay Rodriguez @ Backbeat Auckland

Jay 2019 (1)Anyone who saw Jay Rodriguez play the last time he was in town will have tripped over themselves to catch him again last week. Rodriguez is a talented and engaging improviser and when he steps onto the bandstand he wins hearts from the get-go. This seemingly innate ability arises from a keen understanding of what will work best with a particular audience. He picks ups on and feeds off the energies in the room. He is also a skilled technician, but he is not there to show off his undoubted chops. His purpose is to involve and to engage at the deepest level; offering musicians and audience alike an unforgettable musical experience.    

These days, dozens of talented musicians pour out of the prestigious Jazz schools and as good as they are, they often have a similar approach and sound. Over time the best of them shake this off, but it takes work and road experience to do so. While Rodriguez attended music school, he also gigged from a young age; cutting his musical teeth on the bandstand and learning his craft at the feet of masters (Tito D’Rivera, Phil Woods and Joe Henderson – playing lead alto with Tito Puente at 15 years of age). Those early days shaped his trajectory and enabled him to move effortlessly across the breath of the Jazz world – and later – traversing the wider music scene (Elvis Costello, Prince, Ribot etc).  You gain the impression that every day on the road added a certain something to his sound. He can channel a raw Texas tenor sound in the same gig as he has people swooning over a ballad.  Once this was a commonplace accomplishment, but as the old road warriors pass, we hear this stylistic breadth less and less.

Here I must offer a disclaimer; I was involved in this Auckland gig. Rodriguez had reached out and generously suggested that we could join forces, adding some spoken word into his show. We had a number of exchanges while he was touring with Marc Ribot (the Songs of Resistance project). Various ideas were canvassed – unlike many improvisers, he is experienced in working with poets as he has associated with many including the late lamented Amiri Baraka. From across the time zones, we explored possible rehearsal times and as is often the case, a quick rehearsal just before the gig was the only possible option. When it came to hiring the band, he made another generous suggestion; he was happy to have some younger and freer spirited musicians on board – in fact, he welcomed that. Crystal Choi and Eamon Edmundson Wells joined Ron Samsom as the core group, with special guests Jonathan Crayford and myself appearing on select numbers. 

Rodriguez is proficient on multi-reed and wind instruments and he frequently travels with most of them. This time he arrived with one flute, a soprano, and a tenor saxophone. When rehearsal time came he unpacked dozens of charts and spread them around clock fashion. My favourite author does this, slowly walking among short stories until an order is fixed. So it was with Rodriguez. We had been pre-warned that what was rehearsed would not necessarily be what was played, as he often changed things around as he read an audience (and often mid-tune by way of signals).

The setlist had a few well-chosen standards and of course, tunes from his critically acclaimed ‘Your Sound’ album.  Although he amended the setlist as the gig progressed and extended numbers, fusing the tunes into a heady new amalgam, the performance had a flow that was preternatural. Working with a musician like this and trusting his instincts to guide you forward is exhilarating. I know that the band enjoyed themselves – the gig became bigger than the individual musicians and that how good gigs should work.    

I have posted a longish clip from the gig, one which demonstrates the energies flowing between the musicians. The clip reminded me of the early Alice Coltrane projects. Deeply spiritual and unafraid to move with the vibe. Choi delighted the audience with her wholehearted engagement, moving from minimalist figures to crystalline arpeggios as the moment demanded. Edmundson Wells, like Choi, often appears on the avant-garde scene and was perfect for the gig.  Samsom, the other experienced hand, offered solid support, creating a cushion and a heartbeat. Last, but not least was Crayford, a generous enabler, a mentor to musicians like Choi. He would normally have appeared as the listed keyboardist, as he and Rodriguez have a deep friendship and they collaborate when they can. This time he was heavily engaged in a project of his own and arrived back in town hours before the gig. He waited out the first set, respecting the established line-up, joining the band with keys for the second. This added a whole new dimension to an already great gig – creating the broader palette that Rodriguez thrives on. The capacity audience reacted to every facet of the gig with enthusiasm and Rodriguez return is eagerly anticipated.

In my case, the overall experience was particularly rewarding – a true learning experience – note to self – let my spoken lines breathe more at the start. When you fit words around live music quick decisions are required, Sometimes you have mere seconds to judge the rhythms of an unfamiliar tune. An opportunity like this is rare and precious and I’m glad I took it.

Jay Rodriguez: (tenor & soprano saxophone, flute), Crystal Choi (piano), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums, percussion), – guests Jonathan Crayford (keys), John Fenton (spoken word) – at ‘Backbeat’, CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 27 February, 2019 – Jef Rodriguez recent album ‘Your Sound’ is available on Amazon, through record stores or go to jayrodriguez.com

Leda’s Dream 2018 – Chelsea Prastiti

Prastiti (1)Chelsea Prastiti was not long back from Cyprus when her band Leda’s Dream appeared at the Backbeat Bar. Prastiti is well known in the Auckland improvised music scene and especially so at the avant-garde end of town. She’s a compelling vocalist and composer who approaches her craft as a free spirit, unfettered by others expectations. When she sings she dives deep and puts herself out there fearlessly but her risk-taking is not a mere academic exercise; it cuts to the very heart of what it means to be a thinking, feeling human. Her compositions are therefore always interesting and out of that a raw beauty and an honesty arise.  Prastiti (2)Although the ensemble played material that we have heard before, they sounded incredibly fresh – even different. Crystal Choi confined herself to accompanying vocals (no keys), Michael Howell stepped further into a measured chordal role and Callum Passells on alto and voice effects was the archetypal minimalist (saying a lot more with less). This felt very right and the re-configuration gave the ensemble a lot more freedom. They stretched out as the spirit took them and the first two tunes filled the entire first set. The voices, in particular, were liberated by the change and this gave wings to the melodic lines and mood. The harmonies were there in spades but that was not what drew you in. It was ‘mood’ and the pictures that those moods created.  PrastitiPrastiti’s is a brave path and I would expect no less from her. This is a musical space that is sparsely populated and more’s the pity. Think Sera Serpa (duos or trios), Think Norma Winstone (Azimuth 85) or perhaps the brilliant Nordic vocalist Sidsel Endresen (Endresen live with Jan Bang). In this ensemble, she has the musicians to give her the freedom she deserves. Passells, who is unafraid of soft trailing notes or of minimalism, Howell who can follow a vamp to eternity and make it sing, Choi who instinctively makes the right moves, and Eamon Edmundson-Wells and Tristen Deck who know when to lay out and when to add colour or texture. The music drew from free improvisation, standard Jazz and deep Folkloric wells. It did so without undue introspection. The band brought the audience along with them and the bouts of enthusiastic applause proved it. For some reason, and it was partly their attire, the gig felt like a postmodern version of a Pre-Raphaelite tableau. Oh yes indeed, that always works for me.

Leda’s Dream: Chelsea Prastiti (vocals, compositions), Crystal Choi (vocals), Michael Howell (guitar), Callum Passells (alto sax, sound effects), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (upright bass), Tristan Deck (drums), Backbeat Bar, 8 August 2018

Emerging Artists Hwang & Tomacruz

Hwang (2)Two weeks ago the CJC Creative Jazz Club profiled two more emerging artists; Seungeil Thomas Hwang and Kathleen Tomacruz. Hwang and Tomacruz are both guitarists but with quite different approaches to their craft. Hwang leans heavily toward the fusion and rock end of the spectrum while Tomacruz, although adventurous, sits comfortably inside the tradition. Both underscore the value of the University of Auckland, Jazz programme; a programme which prepares musicians in the best possible way; fitting them for whatever musical path they choose. Hwang (1)

Some, go on to become high-skilled ghosts in the machine of popular music. Others follow their dreams and journey deeper into the sublime and multi-faceted world that is modern improvised music. They arrive on the scene ready to learn from the gig life, but with enough knowledge to make them adventurous. I see them in Indie Rock bands and I see them in the experimental avant-garde ensembles – I see them in audiences listening carefully to Dixen Nacey, Jonathan Crayford, Roger Manins or Jeff Henderson. Long may that quest for lifelong learning and the striving towards excellence continue. I can only hope that the current short-sighted obsession for pruning back the humanities, doesn’t touch the UoA Jazz Course; a programme that enriches us culturally and delivers well.Hwang (3)

Hwang finished his Masters at the UoA Jazz School in 2016 and this is his first gig with his fusion band Finesse. He is a formidable and ‘chopsy’ guitarist who makes fast and furious look easy. His set showcased his various musical interests and in spite of their divergence, he never looked phased at any point. With Crytal Choi, Wil Goodison and Adam Tobeck at his back he had the bases well covered.

During the second set, Tomacruz emerged as a thoughtful and confident performer. Her big personality overshadowing her physically diminutive presence. I have seen her perform in other’s lineups but this was a new and commanding Tomacruz. She engaged with the audience and joked with the band; turning on a well rounded and imaginative performance. Again we saw Choi on keys and the talented Goodison on bass – with the addition of  Lukas Fritsch on Alto and Ron Samsom on drums. Choi is such a delight to hear in these situations; so in-the-moment and adventurous. Keep them coming UoA Jazz course.

Finesse: Seungeil Thomas Hwang (guitar, compositions), Crystal Choi (keyboard), Wil Goodison (bass), Adam Tobeck (drums).

Kathleen Tomacruz Quartet: Tomacruz (guitar, compositions), Crystal Choi (keyboards), Wil Goodison (upright and electric bass), Lukas Fritsch (alto sax), Ron Samsom (drums).

The gig was at the Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club, May 16, 2018.

Emerging Artists – Orr / Fritsch

Orr (1)In keeping with the longstanding CJC tradition of keeping twice yearly slots open for emerging artists, late March featured two such sets.  First up was a group led by bassist Denholm Orr.  Orr has appeared in lineups a number of times, but this was his first appearance playing his own material and as a leader. His recent compositional work has placed increasing focus on arco-bass and consequently, the charts reached into that territory. Arco is not the default style for Jazz bassists but I am seeing a lot more of it lately and I welcome that.

Orr opened with a piano trio and as the set proceeded more players were added.  The larger formations tackled ambitious arrangements and this is a hopeful sign of things to come. Emerging artists should reach beyond their comfort zone – being challenged is where growth happens. On piano was the ever-reliable Nick Dow and on guitar Michael Gianan (who wowed us all with his first CJC gig a few months ago). Misha Kourkov was on tenor and new to me was Charlie Isdale on alto and Jack Thirtle was on trumpet. Daniel Waterson was on drums. Kourkov is shaping up to be a presence on the scene and Fritsch is grabbing attention with each fresh appearance. As most are still studying and given their ages and experience, it was a good start. Orr

Lukas Fritsch headed the second set and again this featured ambitious material. Fritsch’s set had a tighter focus and perhaps because he had a few seasoned musicians in the ensemble ranks, the set sang joyously from start to finish. When Fritsch completed his finals, a buzz quickly circulated; that the recital performances had been something special.  I had not attended, but my attention was certainly piqued. The arrangements were superb and the musicians well focused, but the inclusion of Chelsea Prastiti and Crystal Choi gave the set that special something that lifted it beyond the ordinary.  Orr (2)

Choi is fascinating to behold as her trajectory is pointed ever upwards – a pianist who understands how to get inside the music and make it part of her story.  Prastiti likewise is an innovative trailblazer, who takes the path less ordinary.  The front line was Fritsch on Alto, Asher Truppman-Lattie on tenor and Kathleen Tomacruz on guitar.  On bass was Wil Goodinson and on drums Tom Leggett. Fritsch writes interestingly and his performances are well thought through and engaging.

The gig was the last at the Thirsty Dog for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club, It took place on March 21, 2018.

 

 

Martin Kay & ‘Forage’

Kay (3)At some point in human evolution, the majority of humans decided to stay put. In consequence, the hunter-gatherers and the pastoral nomads became outliers. As civilizations grew, agriculture grew and large enclosures and granaries grew along with them. Beyond the walls and the jumble of enclosures; largely unnoticed, often unseen, foraging continued unabated. The homeless on the streets forage, philosophers forage, writers forage, wild and domestic animals forage and above all improvisers forage.

Martin Kay’s gig was a tribute to foraging; highlighting the activities of foraging animals, creatures large and small and to the improbable life lessons, they impart. It was about cultivating absurdity and profundity in equal parts, it was about following the ancient herds using postmodern skills. It nibbled at reality until you saw it afresh, building on overlooked narratives, finding the things we often miss; a Zen Koan wrapped in sound.I first saw Kay in 2013 with ‘Song  FWAA’. The post from then and the accompanying sound clip is still available on this site (use site search, type in Song FWAA).Kay (2) On Wednesday, his charts were for a larger ensemble. This time offering fresh insights; taking us further down the Rabbit hole. The pieces were of variable lengths and sometimes in parts. At some point during the second set, he played a piece titled ‘Ligeti’s Goat (I first heard that back in 2013). While the piece has melodic hooks and a basic structure, it is more, a surrealistic journey. A place where imagining, spoken narrative and musical narrative meet. Ligeti’s goat is vividly embedded in my memory; it is not a piece easily forgotten, a goat wandering through pastures, locating carrots (perhaps forbidden carrots), digesting the vegetables in that mysterious way of all ruminants.

There was a piece titled puffer fish, another called ‘Thrice mice’ (that chart in a minuscule script like mice prints) and a vampire piece titled ‘Once bitten once shy’.  There was also an appealing piece about a tracker dog, selling his skills to those who might have need of them. None of this was an invitation to anthropomorphize – Kay’s animals spoke for themselves. He spends much of his time in New Zealand these days as his wife works here. For this project, he selected a group of local improvisers to form the ensemble; younger players with an open approach to improvisation. In this respect, the location favoured him, bringing the gifted Callum Passels into the group. Also featuring Crystal Choi, Michael Howell, Eamon Edmuson-Wells and Tristan Deck; each one of these having a stake in explorative improvised music. The only non-original piece was ‘Turkish Bath’ by the innovative trumpeter Don Ellis. For material similar to Kays, you need not look any further than Ellis or perhaps Henry Threadgill.  It is good to have Kay in our midst, as he’s an interesting, often challenging and worthwhile composer. I have put up two clips – Turkish Bath and narrative about the Tracker Dog.

Let’s go – much as that dog goes / intently haphazard….not direction, ‘but each step an arrival’  (poet Denise Levertov 1923- 1997)

Forage: Martin Kay (tenor saxophone, compositions), Callum Passels (alto saxophone), Crystal Choi (keys), Eamon Edmunson-Wells (bass), Tristan Deck (drums). CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Rd, Auckland, 20 September 2017

 

Daniel Cho / Leo Coghini

Cho (3)Last week brought us another emerging artist’s gig and this time it featured a Wellington band followed by an Auckland band. Each brought different aspects of improvised music to the bandstand and in a very nice touch, jammed together at the end; a happy meeting place between approaches. With so many international acts scheduled over coming months, it was great to see these young emerging bands given a shot: Again, this was good programming by the CJC.Cho (8).jpgThe Leo Coghini Quartet from Wellington took a straight ahead approach and it was obvious from the first number by Coghini, a solo rendering of ‘It Could Happen To You’ (Van Heusen/Burke), that he was an interesting pianist. He is classically trained, but with a good feel for swing oriented tunes. There were some nice originals in the set, but they were most comfortable on standards. I particularly liked the way they played Parker’s latin infused classic ‘My Little Suede Shoes’, also Kenny Garrett’s ‘Wayne’s Thang’. Both were approached in interesting ways (especially the nicely phrased Parker tune). The last number the quartet played was Stevie Wonders swinging groove classic ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ (which I have posted). Cho (6)In relation to ethnicity and gender, the modern New Zealand Jazz scene is increasingly reflective of the wider population; It is, therefore, good to see women picking up instruments that were once regarded as being exclusively in the male domain. Louisa Williamson was up front on tenor. She overcame some initial nervousness and played well. The other band members were electric bassist Zane Hawkins and Jeremy Richardson drums (both accomplished players).Cho

The second group, a quintet, had a very different approach. Their set list was entirely originals; they also took a loose no prisoners route. The set was clearly owned by the leader, altoist Daniel Cho. During his introduction, he placed a firm marker down; I am on a lifelong spiritual journey and this informs my music. While some ballads were played, he clearly favoured the ecstatic; that mood was reinforced throughout as he embarked on a very Coltrane fueled journey; and late Coltrane at that. His modal approach on some numbers would often move outside, at times leaning toward microtonality. In listening to him, one thing cut through above everything else, the deeper intent of the music; something beyond melody or harmony. This is a brave path for a young musician to take and one that requires enormous self-belief. He certainly possessed that attribute and he communicated it with a confidence beyond his years. Communicating intent is a hard thing to do; it’s selling an impression; it also requires audience deep listening.Cho (1)The tune ‘Within Hymn’ had clear references to Coltrane, but it was also interestingly modern. Although there were distinct parts to it, the piece made more sense as an entirety. It began with a bold statement on the horn, then unwound as it momentarily descended into chaos; next came the body of the piece, a building story, a probing at an idea, then changing again and ending with a climax. None of this would have been possible without the right support. Crystal Choi’s percussive chromaticism as she stabbed at the keyboard, the fourths, dissonant flurries; sometimes swinging as if to provide a counterbalance. Her solo was immaculate and each time I hear her now I’m amazed. Watching her musical journey encompass the avant-garde end of town and everywhere on the way is a treat.Cho (10) It was not just Choi who made this work, but Denholm Orr and Dean Rodrigues as well. Watch the clip through and judge for your self – these guys are amazing. Now a few bars of arco bass, now free or walking bass, and all the while, edgy polyrhythms dancing underneath. I was also pleased to see Kathleen Tomacruz on guitar – a very credible first gig for her.

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The stylistic divergence was fused in the last two numbers when the bands became one on the bandstand. The way they achieved such unity in an impromptu jam says a lot about them all. Big ups to the musicians.

Leo Coghini Quartet: Leo Coghini (piano), Louisa Williamson (tenor saxophone), Zane Hawkins (electric bass), Jeremy Richardson (drums).

Daniel Cho Quintet: Daniel Cho (alto saxophone), Crystal Choi (piano), Kathleen Tomacruz (guitar), Denholm Orr (bass), Dean Rodrigues (drums).

Stephen Thomas – No Hawkers

Steve Thomas (1)In spite of his relative youth, Stephen Thomas is counted as one of New Zealand's better Jazz drummers. He approaches his craft with care and intelligence and it shows in his playing. While his technical skills are superb, he can also communicate on a human level and this is important as it speaks of character. Thomas is a regular on the scene, but like many sidemen and most drummers, he prefers to remain in the shadows. On Wednesday he changed that focus and convincingly staked his claim as band leader.Steve Thomas (4)The ingredients that contribute to a successful gig are often intangible, but this gig ticked a number of those boxes. While tailored to suit a Jazz audience, it did so without being remote or elitist. Another reason the gig worked was because Thomas used humour to good effect; not just his on stage banter but in the music as well. In a live setting this is important – interacting with the listeners on some level, bringing them inside the circle.Steve Thomas (3)Thomas has an abiding interest in the Ellington/Mingus/Roach, 'Money Jungle' recording and Wednesday provided him with a further opportunity to explore that project. While unusual as a source of standards material, it is a great album to focus on – the perfect vehicle for deconstruction. At the time it was recorded, it stood out for a number of reasons. In fact it shouldn't have worked at all, as the trio members reputedly disliked each other. Each had marked stylistic differences and Ellington was of an earlier generation. Ellington told the others that what they would play on the record should be a collective decision; then he turned up with a set list of his own tunes. The one tune which was not Ellington's was by Juan Tizol – a man who Mingus had once been in a knife fight with and because of whom, he was sacked by Ellington. What should have been a disaster for many reasons was a success. A brave post-bop recording by artists firmly rooted in other eras.Steve Thomas

Chosen from the Money Jungle material were 'Wig Wise and 'African Flower' (Ellington). Both of these tunes were given interesting treatment. The latter rendered into a dreamy fusion like vibe and the former, given a wonderful vaudevillian twist; the head melody line played on an analogue Prophet 08 synth. Reverence and open exploration in equal parts.Thomas's own tunes were interesting as well. 'No Hawkers' was a cleverly constructed solo piece; his engaging beats triggering pre-recorded samples, which he played over. 'Rat Race' was another great tune, this time with the full ensemble.Steve Thomas (5)

The other two standards were Giant Steps (Coltrane) and 'Fascinatin' Rhythm' (Gershwin). His quintet featured Crystal Choi, Michael Howell, Tom Dennison and J Y Lee and what a great band they were. Choi was especially wonderful; she's comfortable in a variety of settings and she just keeps growing as a musician – she really digs in and the sky's the limit for her. Howell was also decisive in his playing and it really suited him. Lee and Dennison are seasoned professionals and we are never disappointed by either. I was still buzzing from Dennison's previous weeks gig on electric bass – that boy can do no wrong.

No Hawkers: Stephen Thomas (arrangements, drums, samples), Crystal Choi (keyboards), Michael Howell (guitar), J Y Lee (alto saxophone), Tom Dennison (upright bass) – CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K' Road, Auckland, July 12, 2017

Leda’s Dream

Chelsea‘Leda’s Dream’ has been around for some time, but this is the ensemble’s first appearance at the CJC. When vocalist Chelsea Prastiti first conceived of the project, she saw it as a vehicle for unfettered collective improvisation. Her writing cleverly expands on that concept, encompassing real places, the past, abstract ideas, and opening the listener to endless possibility. There is a structure to her vision, but to grasp it you must let go of what you think you know. The pieces are mirage-like; if you look too closely they will disappear.  As you listen, fragments of the familiar appear, then dissolve. These are seamless journeys; cleverly fusing reality with dreamscapes. Leda’s Dream is to be experienced and enjoyed, not pigeonholed.Chelsea (1)

This is avant-garde music, perhaps the bravest we have heard at the CJC this year. The traditional Jazz references were there, but the freedom to expand or contract themes characterised the tunes. During ‘Faster down ice’ I heard echoes of Mingus; driving, pulsating rhythms over which freedom was explored. Tristan Deck and Eamon Edmundson-Wells at the heart of this pulse (on drums and bass respectively). With a human voice in the mix, the ideas became multi-dimensional. The human voice is the oldest of instruments and when it moves beyond words, the forms which anchor it – a rawer emotion is exposed. Sometimes it is pretty or melodic, at other times a primal scream. Listening to this music is to experience sound on its own terms.Chelsea (5)Prastiti’s ‘Time Lapse Photography’ was filmic. Revealing the essence of unfolding plants – magical realism – biology expressed as music. In a similar vein was her piece,’Rain Flood’. As she sang, you experienced the droplets of water – falling slowly at first, then faster until they became a deluge. Communicating in this way is a gift few possess, the images seeming to emerge from nature or from experience, not from the musical form. I immediately thought of my favourite Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray and his mystical Monsoon scene from ‘Pather Panchali’. The effect created by Ray there, also swept us to the heart of a poignant interaction between man & nature (musically assisted in that case by Ravi Shankar and Mingus alumni Charlie Mariano).Chelsea (3)The Leda’s Dream ensemble are alumni from the UoA Jazz School. A lot of talent emerged during the years they attended and during this particular gig it coalesced. It was a pleasant surprise to see Crystal Choi playing this innovative abstract music. Choi is a musician who is fast evolving and growing in interesting ways. At Jazz school she stayed closer to traditional forms, or those referencing the folk infused ECM albums. Later I saw her giving a concert on solo piano, Jarrett like in its scope and quite wonderful. On Wednesday she embraced freedom. She was innovative, interactive and confident.

Callum Passells was the lead-horn on alto saxophone. Beside him in the front line for part of the gig was Liz Stokes on trumpet.  Passells is especially comfortable in this space. Playing sparingly and never playing a note for the sake of it, each note meaning something. Michael Howel came on stage for the second set as the full Leda’s Dream experience emerged. First as a quintet then sextet and finally as a septet.

Leda’s Dream: Chelsea Prsatiti (voice, compositions), Chrystal Choi (piano, voice), Callum Passells (alto saxophone, voice), Liz Stokes (trumpet), Michael Howell (guitar), Eamon Edmudson-Wells (upright bass), Tristan Deck (drums), 16th May 2017, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Rd Auckland.

Emerging Artists gig – Exploding Rainbow Orchestra – Equitable Grooves

Emerging A (2).jpgI always look forward to emerging artists nights at the CJC.  They don’t happen often but when they do, they’re fun, full of surprise and most importantly they are hopeful events. It is usual for emerging artists to salt the mine with seasoned players. Both of the bands did well in that regard. The first band up was Misha Kourkov’s ‘Equitable Grooves’, a six-piece unit playing multi-genre Jazz focused music. The material was well written and at times ambitious. Aiming high on the bandstand is good because that is where real learning occurs. If you wish to extend your reach, then having Alan Brown on the piano is exactly what you need. With that sort of experience and groove behind you, you have a fail-safe mechanism. The set opened a little tentatively, but they quickly found their groove; the last two numbers were especially enjoyable.Emerging A.jpg

Misha Kourkov is a strong tenor player. I like his playing in Oli Hollands ‘Jazz Attack’ and as a leader, he has real potential. Most younger players have discernible influences and with Kourkov it is Roger Manins. As he grows as a musician he is increasingly finding his own voice. The track that particularly took my fancy was ‘Friday night at the Cadillac Club’. Early rock and roll stole licks from Jazz. Now the tide has turned. On that number, the group mined the Happy Days vibe while sneaking in snaking bebop lines. The pairing of tenor and soprano worked well, suiting the material they played; the guitar completing the front line by adding a bluesy feel, nice solos, and textural richness. The soprano player, in particular, is one to watch, nice bass and drums also. A popular practice among emerging players is to create cryptic and often unpronounceable tune titles – if that was their aim, then both groups succeeded. Emerging A (5).jpgThe second set featured the ‘Exploding Rainbow Orchestra‘. This was a very different type of ensemble. Freer ranging, a bigger sound palette and an electric bass with the heavyweight punch of Bona. The bass player Joshua Worthington-Church who led the ensemble is accurately described as a maverick. His set list contained genuinely diverse material; gripping vamp-driven originals plus tunes from ‘Radiohead’ and ‘The Mint Chicks’. Under the leader’s guidance, the band took the material to a place close to my heart; a fusion of Jazz and psychedelia. I am happy to see this done, as the genre is all but forgotten. During the mid-seventies, that style of music was sacrificed on the altar of Jazz purism, a pompous battleground that tried to stifle genre exploration. Emerging A (6).jpg

I have always loved the Belgium Jazz guitarist Philip Catherine. Today he is regarded as an elder statesman; admired for his work with Chet Baker, Mingus, Carla Bley, Dexter Gordon, Lagrene etc. His work with the psychedelic Jazz Fusion group ‘Focus’, or the amazingly tripped out violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, overlooked completely. This material is worthy of re-evaluation. With the Exploding Rainbows Orchestra, we moved closer to that. The band worked well as a unit but there was no doubt where the greatest strengths lay; Callum Passells and Chelsea Prastiti. A pair combining musical maturity with an inbuilt urge to push boundaries.

Music that lays down a vamp, has a locked-in drum groove, can free up the rest of the band. When there is less rigidity in the harmonic structure, and if the musicians are brave enough, they interact organically: that’s what this ensemble took advantage of.  Passells on alto is a wonderful musician and he knows how to use space. When paired with Prastiti on vocals, otherworldly magic happens. In the background, almost hidden from sight, Crystal Choi layered moody fills and passages on a compact keyboard. The guitarist Michael Gianan took few risks, but his comping and his unison lines added another rich textural layer. I hope that this project continues – there are a few sound balance wrinkles to iron out, but hey, it really was a buzz.

Equitable Grooves: Misha Kourkov (leader, tenor saxophone) Alan Brown (piano), Nathan James (Guitar), Edwin Dolbel (bass), Daniel Reshtan (soprano ), Daniel Waterson (drums).

Exploding Rainbow Orchestra: Joshua Worthington-Church (Leader, electric bass), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Sean Martin-Buss (tenor saxophone), Chelsea Prastiti (vocals), Crystal Choi (keyboards), Michael Gianan (guitar), David Harris (drums),

The event was at the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, 03 May 2017

Neil Watson gig / Crystal Choi gig

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Neil W 128.jpgTubular Live: Having earlier reviewed the long anticipated Neil Watson ‘Tubular’ album I looked forward to the live launch. The Thirsty Dog gig was well attended, the audience extremely enthusiastic and no wonder. Although we saw a slightly different line-up from the album band, they were on fire from the first note. Watson, always a confident performer, was more in command than I have ever seen him and he communicated his musical vision effortlessly. Perhaps this was due to the long gestation of the material, but now he had a platform to extend the concepts further and he grabbed the opportunity.  The evening seamlessly covered the breadth of guitar jazz and beyond. While much of the material was influenced by Jazz/Rock or improvisations built on genres like surf guitar, the gentler mainstream Jazz heroes of the past like Johnny Smith and Errol Garner were also honoured. Neil W 130.jpgOn the ‘Tubular’ album his musical influences are evident. At the live gig, he stared those influences down and carved out his own space. He is one of the few New Zealand musicians who can convincingly occupy Frisell or Ribot territory and he demonstrated that. The perfect example was his rendering of the classic five beat Mambo Picadillo by Tito Puente. He began with a solo intro, dissonant chords offering brief hints as to where he was heading. As he developed his theme the audience gasped in delight as Errol Garners ‘Misty’ emerged, morphing into the gentler Johnny Smith version of ‘Moonlight in Vermont’. That it worked at all is a tribute to his musicianship, that it was done so well all the more so. The Mambo was well-arranged and just superb, not a foot remained still and the bar staff stopped in their tracks, swaying.  Another tour de force (not on the album) was his arrangement of ‘Hard rains are going to fall’ (Dylan). This followed his gentle ballad ‘Kerala’.Neil W 131.jpg

The band finished the last set with an upbeat number and there was no way the audience was going to let things lie there. Watson in keeping with his quirky humour and well within his brief; finished with the 1959 surf/rock guitar classic ‘Sleepwalk’ (Santo & Johnny). Accompanying him he had the talented and versatile Ron Samsom (drums) and Olivier Holland (upright bass). Replacing Grant Winterburn on Keyboards and Roger Manins on tenor saxophone was Cameron Allen. If anyone can replace two talented musicians and do so convincingly it is Allen. Instead of a tenor he played baritone saxophone and at other times his array of keyboards and ‘doogon’. I have video but I am still experiencing upload problems – I will upload when sorted.

Cryst 128.jpgCrystal Choi (private concert): This particular invitation-only concert was organised by Jonathan Crayford and the invitations were swiftly taken up. Crayford is a legendary figure on the New Zealand music scene and when he gets behind a young artist, people pay attention. I have watched Choi develop musically over the years, but I had not seen her perform for some time. In the past she has appeared with students, part of an ensemble, seldom stepping into the limelight for long. This was a departure, a brave step into the challenging world of improvised solo piano. Developing artists (and even experienced performers) struggle with this format, some panic and resort to noodling. When Crayford introduced the concert he stated, “Crystal is amazing, and what you are about to hear will speak for itself”. He was right.Cryst 129.jpg

What we witnessed was a rapidly maturing artist. She exuded a confidence I had not seen before and her ideas were well-developed, all communicated with the utmost clarity. There were two sets and most of the compositions were her own. It was a large crowd for such a small space, but not a soul talked, shuffled, clinked glasses or coughed. She had them all in rapt attention as she wove her stories around themes and explored harmonic visions. This is the right musical space for Choi and I hope she develops it further.  A sound that is more European in concept than American, where space, melody, and nuance are dominant. As she worked her way through the sets, everything flowed. If this is what she is like at 22 years of age, I can’t wait to hear her at 32. The sound was well captured and surprisingly, there were no awkward echoes or untoward harmonics considering the size of the room. It certainly helped that she had a ‘Grotrian’ grand to perform on. I hope that we see more solo piano from Choi.

Neil Watson ‘Tubular’ Live: Watson (guitars, compositions), Cameron Allen, (baritone sax, keyboards, electronics), Ron Samsom (drums), Olivier Holland (upright bass) @ the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Thirsty Dog, Auckland.15th February 2017

Chrystal Choi: Solo piano – 12th February 2017

Sam Weeks & Sean Martin-Buss @ CJC

Sam & Sean 094This year has seen a lot of international acts through the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), compelling musicians with interesting stories to tell and often with serious gig miles under their belt. As exciting as it is to see the high-end performers of the scene, it is just as important to recognise and evaluate those who might one day take their place. Not all will last the course, but the persistent and the passionate can make that journey. Standing in front of a discerning club audience tests young musicians in ways not easily replicated. Unlike the Jazz School environment, the musicians technical prowess is subservient to the authenticity they bring to the bandstand. Fluffing a line is more likely forgiven than delivering a technically perfect but lifeless performance. Sam Weeks and Sean Martin-Buss tested themselves and came through the fire relatively unscathed.Sam & Sean 095The gig was part of the emerging artists series and the musicians first time at the CJC as leaders. Both have previously played as sidemen at the club, but standing anonymously in a horn line is a different thing entirely. I am happy to give this gig the thumbs up as they performed well. It took the first few numbers for them to warm up properly, but warm up they did. The rest of the first set and the one after that delivered crackling performances. All of the material was their own and their writing skills were favourably displayed (especially those of Weeks). A piece titled ‘Missing Together’ by Weeks was a gem – opening with some tricky unison lines, followed by a few bars of counterpoint. They made it sound easy, but clearly, many of these compositions were not. The act of embracing the difficult is how a musician grows. I am glad they took some risks, as Jazz functions best in the absence of complacency.Sam & Sean 093Sean Martin-Buss was on alto saxophone with Sam Weeks on tenor saxophone. Each gave the other ample room and the contrast between the horns was therefore amplified. They also differed stylistically and this gave an added piquancy to the gig. They made good use of interactive Banter, musician to audience and to each other. Off the wall comments came out of nowhere, and the audience included in the joke. The humour was not in the lines but in the offhand delivery. A very Kiwi type of onstage banter – self-effacing, mumblingly casual.Sam & Sean 098Emerging musicians are often tempted to rely heavily on musicians from their own graduate class. There is nothing wrong with that per se, but the first question is always, which musicians will serve the gig best? Again the co-leaders made good choices in Tristan Deck (drums) and Eamon Edmundson-Wells (upright bass). The remaining band member was Crystal Choi on piano. Deck and Edmundson-Wells perform in public regularly and both have earned considerable respect. They personify good musical taste. They have talent and better yet, they work extraordinarily well together. It was this combination that tightened up the performance – real assets. Choi was extremely interesting on this gig. I have sometimes noticed a tiny hesitancy in her delivery. On this night, her performance exuded confidence and several of her solos were stunning. The enthusiastic audience responded throughout the night.Sam & Sean 103Although the leaders possess perfect vision and are clearly not Venetian, the project was ‘The Blind Venetians’. This was also the name of the final number of the last set; a roistering finale bringing down the cantilevered shutters at gigs end.

The Blind Venetians: Sam Weeks (tenor saxophone, compositions), Sean Martin-Buss (alto saxophone, compositions), Crystal Choi (piano), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (upright bass), Tristan Deck (drums). Performed at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel, Auckland, New Zealand, 04 May 2016

 

Louise Gibbs – The Seven Deadly Sins

Louise Gibbs (13) On Wednesday the UK-based vocalist, arranger composer Louise Gibbs brought her Seven Deadly Sins project to Auckland’s CJC (Creative Jazz Club). The audience, unrepentant antipodean sinners that they are, found much to enjoy. When premiered in the UK the project received much acclaim and in 2013 the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ album’ was released. As I glanced through the liner note credits one name jumped out, Tim Whitehead; an important English saxophonist with equal facility on soprano, alto and tenor. For any number of reasons this is an album worth having. Louise Gibbs (10)The song suite has seven parts plus prologue & epilogue. This aggregation of cardinal sins does not originate with Peter Cook (as someone hilariously suggested) but comes to us from the fourth century AD. These very human failings were the obsession of the middle ages and Chaucer, Dante and Brueghel utilised the themes to great artistic effect (and often with rye humour). Debates on morality are still very much part of the public discourse as the dreadful events of Paris, the Lebanon and Mali remind us. Louise Gibbs (4)Gibbs invited us to examine the sins afresh; a parade of human failings as seen through a jazz lens. Her evocative contrasting pieces leaving us in little doubt as to which sin they represented; a strident drum solo during anger, the fulsome sound of the trombone for gluttony etc. It is unsurprising that the tenor saxophone portrayed lust; an entirely appropriate pairing given the repeated historic accusations of lasciviousness levelled against that sensual instrument. Louise Gibbs (5)The suite while highly arranged gave ample room for the soloists to demonstrate their particular vice. Crystal Choi was ‘pride’ on piano, Pete France was ‘lust’ on tenor, Haydn Godfrey was gluttony on ‘trombone’, Mike Booth was ‘envy’ on trumpet, Cameron McArthur was ‘sloth’ on bass, Steve Thomas was ‘anger’ on drums, Andrew Hall was ‘greed’ on alto & baritone. Gibbs was vocalist on all numbers including a prologue and epilogue. Many of the band members like Booth, McArthur, Choi and Thomas are regulars but we see Hall, France and Godfrey less often. That is a shame because they were amazing. Louise Gibbs (12)A shorter first set preceded the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ suite – all Monk compositions. The band used stock arrangements but there was a sense of boisterous freedom in the renditions. This provided an appropriate segue to the second half. While everyone embraces Monk these days, his dissonant choppy lines certainly raised eyebrows back in his heyday. Monk was an iconoclast who channeled the rawness of the human condition through pen and piano. With the Seven Deadly Sins and its often dissonant passages we also experienced that. Louise Gibbs (14)Louise Gibbs has been teaching and performing in the UK for 30 years, but she grew up in Auckland. In recent years she moved away from a distinguished career in academia to concentrate on performance and composition. There is a confidence about her work and she is unafraid as a performer. Her voice can move from silk to raspy as appropriate to the piece. Footnote: Earlier I drew attention to Tim Whitehead (on the Gibbs album). He was once a member of Ian Cars ground breaking and popular group ‘Nucleus’ – the highly respected Kiwi born saxophonist Brian Smith was a founder member of that group.

The Seven Deadly Sins’ (New Zealand Septet) – Louise Gibbs (vocals, composition), Andrew Hall (alto & baritone saxophones), Pete France (tenor saxophone), Mike Booth (trumpet, Flugel),  Haydn Godfrey (trombone), Chrystal Choi (piano), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Stephen Thomas (drums).

The gig took place at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 18th November 2015.

Crystal Choi ‘Skogkatt’ @ CJC

Crystal Choi Skogkatt 098I looked forward to the ‘Skogkatt’ gig because Crystal Choi is a young musician with plenty of interesting ideas. She recently graduated from the UoA Jazz school and this project is largely drawn from her output as a student. Her arrangements and musical ideas show an evolving musician and her performance skills speak of energy and a growing confidence. When you speak to her there is a hint of shyness, but this evaporates the minute her hands touch the keyboard. At the piano her touch is decisive and the thinking behind the pieces is strongly communicated. She has grasped an important truth, how to play with space. One minute she is playing boldly with both hands raining down on the keys, the next dropping back to a gentle whisper or laying out. Her choice of project was a brave one as it tackled areas well beyond the usual Jazz orbit. Writing for strings and an unusually configured horn section an indicator of where she could be headed.Crystal Choi Skogkatt 101Her compositions and charts were of particular interest as they evoked more of a Northern European, or South American ethos than a North American one. While all Jazz arises from American roots, there are other forces at work in a globalised jazz world. As musicians from different ethnic backgrounds embrace improvised music something fresh is added. It is right that New Zealanders, Northern Europeans or people from other regions bring something of their own life experiences to the music. Jazz from the outer rim is particularly interesting at present.Crystal Choi Skogkatt 090There were solo, trio, sextet, septet and tenet pieces. Her writing for the ten piece band was notable. Although an uncommon configuration of instruments these oddly configured, medium-sized ensembles have been a feature in modern classical music since Saint-Saens ‘Carnival of the Animals’ (that was an eleven piece). In Jazz since the late 40’s. Having a front line with two violins and cello alongside trumpet/flugel, bass-clarinet, clarinet and flute/alto saxophone worked well. The unusual textures gave depth and interest to the composition. The slightly tart voicings of the Bartok like string section contrasting nicely with the woody richness of the woodwind horns. These sort of excursions are not embarked upon lightly but I feel Choi pulled it off. My only quibble, and it is a small one is that the ensemble needed to tighten up somewhat in places.Crystal Choi Skogkatt 087Another side of Choi is her singing. While certainly not a big voice it has charm and originality. Like many improvisers she sings while digging into a solo. These are wordless songs of the sort that you would hear on a Norma Winstone album. At times there is a Debussy feel to her solo and trio compositions.Crystal Choi Skogkatt 096This project while far-ranging begs developing further and perhaps recorded at some future point. It had a Kiwi ECM feel to it. I hope that she works with the material and refines it further. It is well worth doing.  Note: The Skogkatt is native to the forests of Scandinavia and the original Maine Coon cat.Crystal Choi Skogkatt 094

Crystal Choi – ‘Skogkatt Project‘ : Crystal Choi (piano, compositions, arrangements), Eamon Edmunsen-Wells (bass), Tristen Deck (drums), J Y Lee (alto sax & flute), Eizabeth Stokes (trumpet & flugel), Asher Truppman Lattie (clarinet, tenor saxophone), Sean Martin-Buss (Bass clarinet & tenor sax), Charmian Keay (violin), Milena Parobczy (violin), Yotam Levy (cello).

CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 24th June 2015

Rebecca Melrose to Montreux @ CJC

Rebecca Melrose 085The last time I saw Rebecca Melrose perform was at a CJC gig, not long after her graduation from the UoA Jazz School. That was well over a year ago. Since then she has made her way as a vocalist, exploring several musical genres and recording an EP (yet to be released). This gig was straight ahead Jazz; her interpretations of various Jazz standards. I remember being impressed by Melrose the last time I heard her as there is a rich quality to her voice and she knows how to play with lyrics. At the last gig she took risks with her choice of material and it paid off. This time the sets were more mainstream but she exuded an easy-going confidence; the sort that comes with time in front of audiences.Rebecca Melrose 092Accompanying her were three graduates from the UoA Jazz Programme. Crystal Choi on piano, Eamon Edmunson-Wells on bass and Jared Devaux de Marigny, drums. CJC audiences have seen a lot of Edmunson-Wells over recent years and increasingly we are seeing Choi. Desvaux de Marigny is not seen as often. These are all fine musicians. Additional to the core lineup were guest artists Callum Passells (alto) and Liz Stokes (trumpet).Rebecca Melrose 087

The rhythm section worked well as accompanists and stood out during the brief solo spots (when they functioned as a trio). In this space Choi stood out in particular, her piano work showing edge and maturity. For a recent graduate she shows enormous promise and her own gig (to follow this) will be one to catch. I have put up the clip ‘Afro Blue’ (Mongo Santamaria) as it has a modernist feel about it. Her take being closer to the Robert Glasper/Erykah Badu version than the original.Rebecca Melrose 086Melrose has been selected as a semi-finalist in the prestigious Shure Vocal Competition (the only Australasian/Pacific finalist). She will fly to Montreux shortly to compete in the finals at the 2015 ‘Montreux Jazz Festival on Lac Lemon. This gig and other events are to help her get there. I wish her well.Rebecca Melrose 093

Rebecca Melrose 090Quartet: Rebecca Melrose (leader, vocals), Crystal Choi (piano), Eamon Edmunsen-Wells (bass), Jared Desvaux de Marigny (drums).

CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, 17th June 2015

Michael Howell & Kenji Holdaway @ CJC

Howell Holdaway 075 This was ’emerging artists’ night and you wouldn’t have thought so. The club had packed to capacity and the performances were far beyond what you’d expect from students. The artists approached their sets differently, but the end results were equally satisfying. Both study at the Auckland University Jazz School and if that institution is turning out students of this quality it certainly reflects well on the faculty. Howell Holdaway 077Michael Howell is from West Auckland and for some reason a number of excellent guitarists emerge from that quadrant. Growing up in the Waitakere ranges seems to have gifted his playing with an expansiveness and it is not hard to imagine big vistas and tree-clad hills during his ballad numbers. Howells set opened with a ballad and edged into the faster tempos later. His thoughtful opening took us deep inside the music and this was a good way to start a set. As well as his own tunes he featured compositions by Ben Monder, Sam Rivers and John Scofield. When a guitar trio doesn’t use an organ or piano there is more space to work in. This was well utilised by Howell although he is also adept in larger group situations. I heard him a few days later when he sat in with a number of very experienced musicians and he stepped into that space effortlessly. There were two numbers with piano and fellow student Crystal Choi sat in for these (also adding a vocal line). The other musicians were Eamon Edmundson-Wells on Bass (who also played bass in the second set) and Tristan Deck on drums. These former UoA students have already made their mark on the scene.  Howell Holdaway 081Kenji Holdaway led the second set and his approach was quite different. Most of the tunes he chose favoured collective improvisation and they draw upon diverse genres. His bandstand presence and the way he approached tunes oozed confidence. He had also chosen some former UoA students to accompany him and his choice was right on the money. J Y Lee is a gifted alto player and he can work the spectrum from avant-garde through to the lyrical ballads that give sentiment a good name. His musicality shone through during this gig and he just gets better and better. On Rhodes and piano was Conner Mcaneny and he often pushed the group into a freewheeling fusion space. Once again It impressed me how well his playing served the music as it was far from formulaic. When the others were playing his comping chords acted as clever punctuation; urging them to reach further and deeper. Another surprise was Tom Legget on drums and perhaps I have not been paying proper attention. I recall him sitting in during the CJC Jam Sessions of 2012.  Now he is a fully formed drummer. His contributions tasteful and decisive. Eamon Edmundson-Wells was on bass once again and he showed what a tasteful player he is.  While the band was good it was Holdaway who dominated. It was not that he injected himself into others solos for he would regularly lay out respectfully. It was his impressive command of the guitar, that and the sense that he was really across this gig. Howell Holdaway 078

Asher Truppman Lattie / J Y Lee emerging artist series

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Thirty years ago Jazz students kept close to the safer standards for a first time club gig.  Post millennium Students reference a variety of genres; even during a single number.  That may sound like a recipe for disaster and if handled ineptly it would be.  What I heard on this gig was at times clever and perhaps even cheeky.  It bodes well for the adventures ahead.  It is important that Jazz retains a sense of adventure and joy.  There is certainly room for serious explorations, but music that takes itself too seriously is a downer.

The programming of CJC gigs ensures that a variety of acts.  This is a particular strength.  I have remarked upon this before and it is this practice that enables the Jazz club to hold ’emerging artists’ gigs every so often.   It is far from being a weak commercial proposition as these nights usually draw significant crowds.  Everyone who follows this music knows that artists don’t emerge from their studies fully formed.  They develop incrementally; as they practice, play beside better musicians and as they perform in front of discriminating audiences.  Having a project in hand like the ’emerging artists’ series is an important step.  There are a number of Jazz schools in New Zealand (and some very good teachers in the private sector).  It is therefore important that we evaluate the students.  So far the quality of emerging artists has been impressive.  IMG_1957 - Version 2

There was a double billing on the 6th August.  First up was the Asher Tuppman Lattie quintet, followed by the J Y Lee Sextet.  Following tradition the band members were all fellow students or recently graduated students and the reasoning behind this practice is sound.  If they appeared with well established and highly competent musicians, a lingering doubt could remain.  Would they have sounded as good without the latter?  Choosing from fellow students gives context and synergy.  Everyone needs to step up in unison.   IMG_1953 - Version 2

I have posted a number titled ‘Tango’ which provides a context for my initial comments.  At first it appears to be traditional Jazz Tango fare as it briefly utilises the raspy sounds made famous by Gato Barbieri.  Then you get a sense of fun, as it playfully takes the genre apart.  We get bebop and the merest hint of free in what follows.   The vaudevillian feel of the piece worked well.  It is similar to the sounds I heard during my explorations of Italian Jazz, a country where the blurring of Jazz, folk and free is often elevated to high art.  Jazz Tango is something that I love and I’m not sure Kiwi’s get this.  Listen to Gerry Mulligan with Aster Piazzolla or Gary Burton or even Carla Bley and you will find Tango gold.  The Jazz Tango master who appeared to acclaim at the recent Wellington Jazz Festival was probably ignored by most Jazz fans.  Their loss.  The pianist Connor McAneny  played the first set.  He is an imposing presence; not because he is dominant, but because his assuredness when comping and his tasteful solos grow ever more confident.

Second up was J Y Lee, a young alto player who is often seen around town.   He is heard in many lineups and his taste for the avant garde has added a piquancy to his sound.  His played a  varied set, giving him the ability to demonstrate a range of his writing and playing skills.   Utilising Chelsea Prastiti on vocal lines was a masterstroke as the colour she adds to an ensemble is unique.   As in the Asher Tuppman Lattie set the second horn player was Sam Weeks.   Sam had played Alto in first set but took up tenor duties for the second set with J Y Lee.  I have put up a piece which shows Weeks and Lee playing together.   The arranged head is tight and melodic and as the piece opens out, everyone is given a chance to stretch a little.  IMG_1950 - Version 2

The pianist for the second set was Chrystal Choi.  She is a gifted pianist and it is a real shame that we don’t see her more often.  In spite of having well-developed chops she never over-plays.  Every note counts and she is definitely one to watch.   Bass player Djordje Nikolic and drummer Tristan Deck played both sets.   I have only heard Nikolic a few times but he acquitted himself well.   Tristan Deck is increasingly seen about town and it is no wonder that he is employed more often.  His time feel and confidence mark him out.

There was a good attendance for the gig and judging by the whoops and cheers everyone enjoyed it.

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club)  www.creativejazzclub.co.nz

Emerging Artists Matt Bray & Crystal Choi

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It’s an institution that the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) dedicates a handful of gig nights to emerging-artists.  This is often the musicians first public performance.  Performing in a club is a step up for any emerging artist, as audience expectations must be confronted.  In a Jazz club they’re expected to entertain; communicate something special.  It is not an exercise in ticking the ‘must demonstrate chops’ box.  Audiences have to like what you’re doing, rather than thinking how clever.

The sets attracted good crowds and that is important.  Supporting this music starts by supporting its emerging artists.

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The first set up was Matt Bray’s, who varied his pieces to reflect his many influences.   There were standards, original compositions and even a ‘Radiohead’ number.  Matt plays guitar and he has been keen explore the tonal and voicing possibilities of that instrument.  We saw him on the bandstand only the week before, as he plays in the AJO (Auckland Jazz Orchestra).  With the AJO he had tackled complex Cuban melodies and rhythms.  On this gig he was free to explore a wider vista; looking to modern guitarists like Kurt Rosenwinkel whose influence was evident.  He had chosen his band mates well and especially with the experienced and multi faceted drummer Cameron Sangster.  Cameron is the resident drummer with the AJO, but he is also featured to advantage in several well-known local bands.

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Conner McAneny was on piano (+keys) and he’s already performed several gigs at the CJC.  He’s a reliable performer and well able to keep out-of-the-way of the guitar, while shining in solo spots.   The last band member was Eamon Edmundson-Wells who recently graduated from the Auckland University Jazz School.   He was in both sets and is unfailingly impressive.   At the rate he is going he will soon be chasing Cameron McArthur and the fact that he is stepping into the gig slots normally taken up by Cameron (who is playing in the Chicago Musical pit band) tells its own story.

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The second set was Crystal Choi’s and it puzzled me that I had not met her until recently.   Crystal is a very fine pianist and she oozed confidence and style (she started her studies as a classical pianist but wanted more freedom to explore music).   She has emerged from the Auckland University Jazz school as a well formed and supremely confident pianist and to hear her perform it was hard to get my head around the fact that it was her first club performance.  I tracked her down later and put a few questions to her.   What year was she? (A third year graduate); had she performed with this trio/quintet outside of the Jazz School? (No).  She said that she had not felt ready before, but now she did.   Well she certainly showed us ‘ready’ that night.   The audience went wild after her set and kept yelling for an encore.  A superb first outing by any measure.

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The first number up was Bud Powell’s ‘Un Poco Loco’ and she skilfully moulded it to to her purpose.  This was a burner with plenty of flash, but a lot of soul besides.  I wondered if her handling of a ballad would be as assured, because ballads can reveal weaknesses quicker than any fast paced number.  I soon found out that ballads were no obstacle either and in addition her own compositions took interesting directions.   Her quintet was Peter Ruddell (tenor saxophone), Michael Howell (guitar), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (bass) and Tristan Deck (drums).

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The charts were textured and interesting; often augmented by Crystal singing unison lines.  I have chosen a clip of Crystals rendering of the standard, ‘In Your Own Sweet Way’ (Dave Brubeck).   I was impressed by this as it was slightly reharmonised and the implied notes spoke as clearly as the notes played.  When a musician knows what to leave out and what not to, they are well on the way.

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Michael Howell certainly caught my attention, as his clean soaring lines told me that he was a modernist but with a good sense of history.   Tristan Deck I have heard before and so I was not surprised to see how seamlessly he handled the changes in mood and texture.  A good drummer to have on board.   The remaining band member was Peter Ruddell on Tenor saxophone.   He only played briefly but he had a lovely tone and his lines were clean and imaginative.  This band played well together.   They we’re tight, but they never once strangled the music.

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I look forward to hearing Matt Bray and Crystal Choi as they develop further.

What & Where: Emerging Artists gig @ CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 1885 Britomart, Auckland 13th November 2013

Who first set: Matt Bray (leader, guitar), Connor McAneny (piano, keys), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (bass), Cameron Sangster (drums)

Who second set: Crystal Choi (leader, piano), Peter Ruddell (tenor saxophone), Michael Howell (guitar), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (bass), Tristan deck (drums).