The last time the Jelly Rolls Jelly Rolls played at the CJC was two years ago and they are just the right band for a pre-Christmas 2017 gig. To my ears, nothing sounds more like Christmas than the Jelly Rolls. Forget your formulaic Christmas albums – this is good times music and you can feel it deep in your bones. The Jelly Rolls are important for a number of reasons, but not least because of their outreach to both provincial and urban New Zealand. The year has gone well for them and after touring the band to unlikely corners of the Island, they arrived in Auckland in peak form. Their particular brand of swing-infused music is seldom heard live and it’s a delight to hear it done (and done so well). To a new generation of listeners, this is often an eye-opener and so it should be. Their playlist comprises originals but also showcases an all but forgotten improvised treasure trove.
Much of the Jelly Rolls music comes from an important moment in the development of Jazz. It digs into the repertoire of musicians like Erroll Garner, Fats Waller, Ahmad Jamal, Jack Teagarden and Oscar Peterson. These musicians were far more important than mere historical footnotes – they were vital stepping-stones to where we are today; larger than life musicians who entertained and made us smile. In the Jelly Rolls hands, all of the above are referenced; not in a ‘let’s do some retro stuff’ way but by encapsulating style and essence. Those who know their music history will pick up these threads but will also enjoy the immediacy. This is music to be enjoyed in the now, enjoyed at a visceral level; foot-tapping body-swaying music. Some of what we heard, the swing material, was from their earlier ‘Live in Cromwell’ album (I love that title).
When I last saw Ben Wilcock he was about to move to Rotorua. His new location among the lakes and geothermal marvels prompted him to write some fresh material. The Phantom Canoe is an ambitious project focusing on Te Arawa legends of the central North Island. In deference to local Iwi and Hapu, he consulted elders as the project unfolded. Armed with their blessings and advice, he told the stories in his own voice. The album arising out of that project is on data-card and it includes a short video. There is a piece about a Taniwha, the epic of Hinemoa and Tutanekai is told in several parts but the most dramatic tale is the title track ‘The Phantom Canoe’. Beautifully paced, gently evocative of the landscape and the mysterious story behind it.
A Phantom Canoe appeared on Lake Tarawera on the 13th May 1886 and it was seen by the wiser Maori inhabitants as a portent of the coming eruption. The volcano erupted violently 10 days later, obliterating the villages around the shore and the iconic pink and white terraces. No such canoe had ever been on the lake and those in the canoe were dressed in traditional shrouds. Michael Barker’s vibraphone melody over a repeat pattern on piano and bass was just right for this, Wellington drummer John Rae completing the piece nicely as he evoked the final eruption sequence. It was obvious that the band enjoyed performing together and the audience picked up on that and responded. The line up on Squeaky Weasel, an earlier Jelly Rolls album, was as now Wilcock, Rae and bass player Yeabsley. The addition of Michael Barker on percussion and vibraphone is an evolution that makes perfect sense. Trumpeter Finn Scholes joined them for one number and delivered a well thought through high energy solo. To pick up a copy go to Ben Wilcock Thick Records Ltd – www.thickrecords.co.nz They appeared at the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog Tavern, K’Road, Auckland on 29 November 2017
Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller and Errol Garner can install a smile on your face in two jaunty bars. It is the same with Wellington’s ‘The Jelly Rolls’. Waller and Garner are widely loved but seldom imitated; probably because what they do is extremely difficult. The original recordings also stand up so well that mere clones would be a redundancy. The Jelly Rolls have achieved something special by locating the spirit of this cheerful Harlem Stride influenced music; achieving this through a clever synthesis of the leading stylists. For good measure they have thrown in a touch of the more modern Ahmed Jamal and a pinch of Oscar Peterson. This is the sound of joy, wild unbounded exuberance.
In recent years there have been surprisingly few attempts to honour this era. A Jazz historian once described Garner as a happy footnote; a blip aside from the mainstream. He was correct in one sense, as there is no Errol Garner school of pianism. While that is less true of Waller the extent of their influence remains strangely allusive. Great pianists can influence those who follow in subtle and various ways, but it often requires the fullness of time for their real influence to become evident. A just released album ‘All Rise’ by the very modern pianist Jason Moran honours ‘Fats’ and names him as a prime influence. This is a post millennial interpretation and speaks in an engaging contemporary voice. Some years ago a famous and well respected pianist took a different and traditionalist tack. Although eminently qualified to tackle such a tribute, the album somehow fell short. I have often puzzled at that. When approaching ‘Fats’ Waller and especially Garner, the first requisite is having the chops. The second requisite and perhaps the most important, is knowing when to subvert any sense of reverence and reach for the Joy. This is not music for a dry piano-roll type transcription.
The Jelly rolls did something special here; they effortlessly took us back to the era of rent parties and speakeasies. To a time when a pianists left hand worked harder than the ‘hoofers’ in the room. The fact that pianist Ben Wilcock’s braces kept falling to his elbows added to the illusion. It made us feel like we were watching a Willie the Lion or a ‘Fats’Waller; something redolent of a hat tilted at an impossibly dangerous angle or a chewed cigar barely surviving the banter. On bass was Dan Yeabsley, finding ways round that powerful walking left hand on piano and yet still holding the centre. On drums was John Rae the iconoclast, playing the old style two-beat rhythms on brushes and sticks as if born to it. The same Rae we know to be madly expressive. The same Rae for whom no complex subdivision of time is out-of-bounds. Here he was, working the gig like an old school drummer (that huge grin still intact). All three were magnificent but Wilcock’s piano work must get the grand prize. When post-bop practitioners like these pull out such performances a truth’s revealed. Experienced, tasteful and talented Jazz musicians can tackle almost anything and do it well.
During the second set, Auckland’s premier tenor saxophonist Roger Manins came to the band stand. You could see that he was hungry for a piece of this magic and he shone. Manins always amazes and he had somehow adjusted his embouchure to give out a full-bodied era-appropriate sound. We were also impressed when Yeabsley put down his bass and played a sweetly melodic baritone saxophone. After a good sampling of Waller, Jamal, Ellington and Garner, the Jelly Rolls rounded things off with ‘The Sheik of Araby/I’ve got a New Baby’. Just perfect.
There is an inescapable sense of fun about this trio. They swing like crazy and they radiate mischief. This is especially evident as they shuffle together a few era appropriate licks. The Jelly Rolls album “Sneaky Weasel’ can be purchased from the site below.
What: The Jelly Rolls – Ben Wilcock (piano), Dan Yeabsley (bass), John Rae (drums).
Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) – Britomart 1885 Basement. 11th Feb 2015