Brian Smith Quintet

SmithBrian Smith is a legendary figure in New Zealand Jazz, achieving career highs that few others attain. Normally artists of this stature settle overseas and are seldom seen after that. It was our good fortune that Smith moved back to New Zealand and in consequence, we get to hear him perform locally. It’s a moot point whether good musicians ever truly retire (luckily, the answer is seldom). Not so long ago he formed a quintet and since then he has been performing at venues around town. While Smith is a regular at the CJC, this is the first time that we have seen the current quintet in action.  The event was predominantly a standards gig and a band of veterans is the right vehicle where standards are concerned. When you bring a selection of loved tunes back into orbit, comparisons are inevitably made. Therefore it pays to choose well and to perform them well and that’s exactly what the Brian Smith quartet did. Smith (1)

Smith possesses an authoritative air on his horn, the end result of considerable experience and his well-acknowledged chops. Consequently, he always sounds great and always looks comfortable on the bandstand. Behind him in the darkness was Frank Gibson, Jr on drums. Gibson and Smith go back a long way and he is exactly the right drummer to lift these warhorse tunes to glory; most of them coming from the hay-day of Jazz. While Gibson has many strings to his bow, this is his forte. Up front was multi brass and reeds player Chris Nielson. It was good to hear Nielson again and especially on trombone, a horn that has sadly been disappearing from small ensembles since the 60’s. Nielson also brought other horns with him, favouring an American cornet, an instrument which in his hands, produced a strong rounded tone. On bass was Bruce Lynch, a highly competent electric and acoustic bass player who is well-known as a music producer and as a former member of the Cat Stevens band.  Almost hidden on the right side of the bandstand was Dean Kerr on guitar. His guitar work was strongly chordal and supportive of the others, providing well-placed contrast for Smith and Neilson as he comped. Smith (2)

Among the standards were ‘In Walked Bud’ (Monk), Stolen Moments (Nelson), There is no Greater Love’ (Jones), Freddie Freeloader and All Blues (Miles), Killer Joe (Golson), St Thomas (Rollins).  I have posted a clip of the perennial favourite ‘Softly as in a Morning Sunrise (Romberg/Hammerstein). There was also a nice tune by Smith which think is titled ‘Short Shift.

The gig took place at the Thirsty Dog for the CJC Creative Jazz Club on March 7, 2018. Brian Smith (leader, tenor saxophone), Frank Gibson Jr. (drums), Chris Nielson (trumpets, flugelhorn, trombone),  Dean Kerr (guitar), Bruce Lynch (upright bass).

Jamie Oehlers @ ‘The Burden of Memory’ tour

Jamie 2016 091When the word gets about that a Jamie Oehlers gig is imminent, excitement mounts. Having turned people away last year, due to a capacity audience, the CJC offered two sessions this time. As expected, both were well attended. Oehlers is highly regarded in the Jazz world and it is not surprising. His astonishing mastery of the tenor saxophone is central to his appeal, but it is more than that. Every note he plays sounds authentic as if no other note could ever replace it, and all conveying a sense of musical humanism.

He introduced the numbers by painting word pictures; creating an expectation that the best is soon to come. The audience anticipating an interesting journey happily followed. He always gives us something of himself and it serves him well. Audiences like to glimpse the human being behind the music and not all musicians are capable of that. If done well (not forced), it must convey warmth. Oehlers is a natural in this regard. This affability applies to the man and to the musician. His egalitarian world-view inevitably seeping into his playing. This is how it is with all the greats. Their sound and their life eventually merge. The horn becoming breath.Jamie 2016 094Oehlers has a new album out titled ‘The burden of memory‘ and we heard many of the pieces as the sets unfolded. Accompanying him on the album is a dream rhythm section: Paul Grabowsky on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums. Each a heavyweight and living up to their formidable reputations. For the Auckland gig, there was Kevin Field on piano, Olivier Holland on bass and Frank Gibson Jr on drums. Jumping in where Grabowsky, Rogers, and Harland had gone was no doubt daunting but they pulled it off in style. All played exceptionally well, but Gibson was a standout. The exchanges between him and Oehlers memorable. These men have history and the old conversations were clearly rekindled on the bandstand. Roger Manins joined Oehlers for the last number of each set and the two dueled as only they can. Weaving skillfully around each other and sounding like two halves of a whole; grinning like Cheshire cats.Jamie 2016 092The album title and the song titles speak clearly of the musicians thought processes. He talks of his motivations and his horn takes us there. The burden of memory is a phrase he heard while listening to talkback radio and it resonated with him. He thinks deeply, examines the world about him and this communicates throughout the album. The second track ‘Armistice’ is a good example, possessing a melancholic beauty, and while it throws up the obvious images of a war ending, it also speaks of families and the tentative steps towards new possibilities.

The dreaming‘ references the indigenous peoples of Australia. An ancient meditative practice, the dreaming is an altered state of consciousness, where the past and future appear to those open enough to receive that gift. Of the two standards, the reharmonized version of ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams‘ particularly appealed. The gig featured several tunes, not on the album; we were especially delighted by the ‘fast burner’ take on ‘After You’ve gone’. That particular standard by Turner Layton harks back to 1918. it was soon picked up by Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and Fats Waller. This bebop referencing version breathed fire into the room. Those who attended the gigs were abuzz afterward and rushed to purchase the album. If you missed the tour and wanted a copy of the album I have included a link below. Recorded in Brooklyn New York at the System 2 studios, the album had the support of the WA Department of Culture and the Arts. Oehlers wrote six of the tunes and co-wrote a further three with Rogers, Harland, and Grabowsky. The remaining three tunes were by Grabowsky, Jobim and Van Heusen.

The event took place at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 02 March 2016. Britomart 1885 building, downtown Auckland, New Zealand.  You can purchase the album and learn more about the artists at www.jamieoehlers.com or http://www.jamieoehlers.bandcamp.com

 

Paul Nairn – Phantom Quartet CJC 2015

Paul Nairn 15 (8)Paul Nairn is a man who avoids limelight and although he is extremely popular as a saxophone repairer he gigs all too infrequently. Those who have seen him before always turn up at his gigs, having fond memories of his standards interpretations and of his rich tone. For all of his reticence he is good company, knowledgable and a guy you enjoy being with. The last time I saw him was at the Doug Lawrence gig, shaking his head in disbelief and saying, “This is the southern styled tenor at its best. some of the greats are in that sound”. It is no secret that the classic era of 50’s Jazz is what he loves best. Larger than life standards played by some of the greatest musicians that walked the earth. The Phantom quartet was back to tell that story.Paul Nairn 15 (7)The band set up early in case there was time for a quick run through but Nairn was nowhere in sight. He is notoriously hard to reach by email, phone or messaging so nobody tried. He is not enamoured of digital technology which is part of his charm. He is old school in good way. “He does know it’s tonight”, joked one band member?  Twenty minutes before start time he arrived breathless. The vagaries of Auckland’s wet weather, downtown traffic and parking had tested but not defeated him.Paul Nairn 15 (4)Nairn’s sound is distinctive; clean but with the pleasant hint of a throaty rasp when he bites into a note. It is certainly a sound that you identify with an era. His repertoire on this night included tunes by Cedar Walton, Chick Corea, Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Joe Henderson and Coltrane. Henderson’s Inner Urge occurred during the first set. It is a complex tune harmonically, but a tune I could never tire of. It was great hearing it again. The clip I have put up is Coltrane’s famous ballad ‘Naima’. Everyone played beautifully on that and especially pianist Broadhurst. His approach was fresh and utterly engaging. Nairn and Santorelli played beautiful solos as well while Gibson kept his impeccable trademark pulse.Paul Nairn 15 (1)Nairn has been on the scene for a long time and when he calls upon veteran players to make up his band he gets them. On piano was Phil Broadhurst. In spite of the rain and coldness of the night he turned up in shirt sleeves, smiling and relaxed. His approach to the keyboard that night was anything but casual; stunning us with some of the best solos I have yet heard him play. For the second time in two months Alberto Santarelli was on bass and Frank Gibson was on drums. With these guys behind you good things can happen and Paul Nairn used them to good advantage.

Paul Nairn’s Phantom Quartet: Paul Nairn (tenor), Phil Broadhurst (piano), Alberto Santorelli (bass), Frank Gibson Jr (drums). CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 5th August 2015.

 

‘Hardbopmobile’ (with Carolina Moon)

Hardbopmobile MONK 11-3-2014 059Frank Gibson Jr’s ‘Hardbopmobile’ has been around for a number of years and the band always delivers uncompromising hard-hitting performances. Gibson and Watson see to that. This no nonsense approach guarantees that Hardbopmobile’s music, even while traversing well worn standards, is fresh. This particular gig was titled ‘Hardbopmobile plays Monk’ and with the interesting addition of vocalist Caroline Moon (Manins) on vocals, it gave us much to enjoy. Familiar and lessor known Monk tunes appeared as the evening progressed. While all of Monk’s recorded material is perennially interesting and seemingly beyond caveat, in the right hands vibrant new interpretations are possible. This is the nature and Monk, the Picasso of modern Jazz; a modernist movement in perpetual progress.Hardbopmobile MONK 11-3-2014 069Ted Gioia pointed out in his book ‘The Jazz Standards’, that only two composers of pure Jazz standards remain in ascendency.  One of these is Monk whose stock has risen steadily for many decades now. The other (and that has occurred more recently) is Billy Strayhorn. Both of these composers had an astonishing modernity about them. In spite of some beguiling melodies, neither offered the listener simplicity. What you get with Monk is often jagged and quirky compositions, but for all that his hooks snag deep. Listening to Monk you hear the sounds of New York. The broken lines andHardbopmobile MONK 11-3-2014 066 startling dissonance are echoes of traffic and street life. Very human sounds and offered from his unique vantage point. In spite of the difficulties life threw at him the music is somehow tender.  Monks was essentially a humanist voice.

Frank Gibson, Neil Watson, Roger Manins, Caro Manins and Rui Inaba gave us an enjoyable evening. At times boisterous and loud, but occasionally gently reflective (e.g.Ruby my dear). I was delighted to hear ‘Ask me now’ as it is all too often ignored by modern Monk interpreters.

Gibson has a driving incessant beat that never flags and this spurs on Watson who loves nothing better than asymmetric lines and chords that drop like IED’s. He told me that he finds Monk liberating. Roger Manins and Rui Inaba were the newer band members. Inaba kept the pulse secure while Manins adopted his usual approach which is always dangerousHardbopmobile MONK 11-3-2014 067 and wild.

Monk has been interpreted by vocalists before and most notably by Carmen McCray.  The last time anyone sung Monk at the CJC was Susan Gai-Dowling and that was three years ago. Hearing Carolina Moon (Manins) doing these interpretations I wonder that it is not done more often. Moon has re-written the Monk arrangements, adding vocal lines. Her ‘Carolina Moon’ (Monk/Moon arr.) is irresistible.  When this was composed in 1924, composers Burke & Davis must have hoped for a hit.  It rose in the charts twice and never more so than when Connie Francis sang it in 1958. I bet that they never saw Monk coming though. Turning the song on its head (no pun intended)and giving it that crazed bebop makeover.  Hardbopmobile MONK 11-3-2014 061

There was also a marvellous interpretation of ‘Epistrophy’. This also featured Moon who had cleverly added some slow rap into the mix. During her preparation for the gig she listened to a famous live performance of Monk doing ‘Epistrophy’. Her attention was immediately drawn to a number of irritating audience members, talking loudly through the solo. She then transcribed the banter and it is now integrated into the tune. This is not only clever but it is fitting and cathartic. Monk would have loved to see these talkative ghosts exorcised. Gibson asking Moon to join the band was inspired. More please.

Who: Hardbopmobile – Frank Gibson (drums), Neil Watson (guitar), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Rui Inaba (bass), – guest Carolina Moon (vocals)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand 25th March 2015.

Brian Smith quartet 2014

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For a man who says that he’s “taking it easy these days”, Brian Smith is remarkably active.  He has been a strong supporter of the recent CJC Sunday Jam sessions,  he still teaches and regularly fronts CJC gigs.   Many regard him as the elder statesman of the tenor saxophone in New Zealand and he certainly has the credentials to fit that title.  It is only when you see him playing his Cannonball or Selmer tenor that you realise just how youthful he is.  Like many experienced tenor players he appears ageless on the bandstand.  That is the alchemy of the instrument and the alchemy of the born improviser.

Advertised as Brian Smith (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (piano), Kevin Haines (bass) Frank Gibson (drums) but on the night Oli Holland replaced Kevin Haines on bass.

It takes a lot of space to list Brian’s musical credentials and it is all too easy to miss out important elements, but here is a brief summary that I have gleaned from elsewhere;

‘Brian relocated to London in 1964, performing at Ronnie Scott’s and working & touring with such names as: Humphrey Littleton, Alexis Korner, T-Bone walker, Georgie Fame,Alan Price, Annie Ross, Bing Crosby, Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, John Dankworth, & Tubby Hayes. He was a founder member of ‘Nucleus’ alongside Ian Carr, which won the European Band competition in Montreaux in 1970, resulting in gigs at Newport Jazz Fest and tours of Italy, Germany, Holland, and America. In 1969 he started working in the Maynard Ferguson band, staying with them until 1975 including touring and recording. He also backed acts like Nancy Wilson, The 4 Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Donovan, Dusty Springfield, Sandy Shaw and Lulu.’

The programming at the CJC is mostly centred around musicians projects.  The gigs are therefore heavily focused on original material or perhaps an oblique take on a particular oeuvre.   We do hear standards but seldom more than one or two a gig.  The exception occurs when international artists arrive in town or when iconic musicians like Brian Smith front a gig.  On occasion it is nice just to sit back and enjoy familiar tunes.  Letting them wash over you, being able to anticipate the lines and comparing them in your head to the versions that you have grown up with.  The very fact that some tunes become standards implies that they have a special enduring quality.  These are vehicles well suited for improvisation and having musical hooks that invite endless exploration for listener and musician alike.  Standards composers are the greatest writers of the song form, but the inside joke is that these wonderful tunes often came from musicals which failed miserably.

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It was great to hear the quartet play ‘You and the night and the music’ which is a firm favourite of mine.  Composed by Arthur Schwartz  (lyrics Howard Dietz), it came from the musical ‘Revenge with music’ which closed on Broadway after a few months.   Frank Sinatra and Mario Lanza revived it and it became popular with Jazz musicians for a while during the 50’s and 60’s.  While the earlier popular renderings tended toward the saccharine, Jazz musicians like Mal Waldren purged the tune of its syrupy connotations.  It was the obscure tartly voiced Lennie Niehaus Octet version (with Lennie on alto, Jimmy Giuffre on baritone and Shelley Manne drums) which won me over.  Over a decade ago I heard HNOP and Ulf Wakenius perform a killing version of it at the Bruce Mason centre and I had not heard it since.  That is until last Wednesday.

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Another great standard was Horace Silvers ‘Song for my father’.  Standards have the power to move us deeply and this tune in particular brought a lump to my throat as my father was slipping away that very week.  One of pianist Kevin Field’s tunes ‘Offering’ was also played and while not a standard it is a favourite about town.   Everyone played well that night with  Oli Holland and Kevin Field up to their usual high standard; Frank Gibson on drums was in exceptional form.  His brush work and often delicate stick work was perfect and it reminded everyone why he is so highly regarded about town.

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I have chosen a video clip from the gig which is arguably the most famous standard of all.  Cole Porters ‘What is this thing called love’.  Cole Porter would always say that the song and lyrics wrote themselves and this version is certainly a worthwhile addition to the selection.  Unlike many of the vocal versions it is fast paced and authoritative.  IMG_1278 - Version 2

Who: Brian Smith Quartet – Brian Smith (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (piano), Oli Holland (bass), Frank Gibson Jr (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand –  June 25th 2014   http://www.creativejazzclub.co.nz

 

 

Mark Isaacs @ CJC

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Pianist and composer Mark Isaacs has a rapidly growing international reputation and we were lucky to get him here.  Once again it was down to Roger Manins, who has wide connections in the Jazz world and we are eternally grateful for it.  Mark Isaacs has toured the world extensively and not only fronted a number of prestigious Jazz festivals, but also recorded with many world-renowned Jazz musicians.  Artists like Kenny Wheeler, Roy Haines, Adam Nussbaum and Dave Holland have appeared on his albums but as if that were not enough, he has two parallel musical careers.   Mark is also a classical pianist/composer of some stature and the conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy said this of his extraordinarily beautiful ‘Children’s Songs’.  “This wonderful cycle is highly inventive and inspiring, accessible to children and adults alike.  Very enjoyable and touching“.

The first thing to strike you about Mark is his intense passion for music, but his focus and drive have not in any way deterred him from exhibiting a cheerful, often extroverted demeanour.  He engaged easily with the CJC audience and his level of report with the band and especially Roger, made the gig all the more enjoyable.  Even though he had not played with drummer Frank Gibson Jr or Bass player Cameron McArthur before it felt like an established band.  He and Saxophonist Roger Manins go back a long way and perhaps because of this long-standing connection, what was billed as a standards gig, soon became so much more.  IMG_8456 - Version 2 (1)

The set kicked off with ‘Gone With the Wind’ (Allie Wrubel – 1937).  By coincidence this once popular but seldom heard tune was performed here by Mike Nock only months earlier.   Both artists appeared to briefly reference the brilliant but somewhat obscure Brubeck version, but each approached the tune in very different ways.  Mark Isaacs is another musician who has the history Jazz piano under his finger tips and as he worked his way into the tune I could hear brief echoes of the past greats.  I love this tune and especially when interpreted this well.

As the set list unfolded I realised that most of the standards were from the 1930’s.   It is not hard to fathom why, as the Great American Songbook tunes written in this period were second to none.  The gig,  subtitled as ‘Pennies From Heaven’, was later explained as being an inside joke.  Roger and Mark had embarked upon just such a project a decade ago and in their view the title scared off the potential audience.  More fool those who failed to turn up because this number in their hands was fresh, funny and satisfying.  ‘Pennies from Heaven’ (Johnny Burke/Arthur Johnston) is also from the 1930’s.

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The tune that I have posted is the perennial favourite ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ (Frank Churchill – 1937).  Although non Jazz audiences would only associate this tune with Disney, it has a long and distinguished Jazz history.  Among the 100’s of well-loved versions are those by Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and Grant Green.  Playing a classic standard like this to a savvy Jazz audience can have its pitfalls as comparisons are inevitable.  The audience however lapped it up and from the stating of the melody through to the open-ended interpretation near the end, it was fabulous.  With Roger egging the band on and Mark responding in kind it could hardly be otherwise.

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There was a very nice solo by Cameron McArthur who astonishingly just keeps improving between gigs.  Frank Gibson Jr met Mark years ago but in spite of them trying to organise a gig it never happened until now.  In the event it was a happy confluence of inventiveness, exuberance and great musicianship.  Roger Manins was on form as usual, delivering fiery energised solos in a post Coltrane manner.

Mark Isaacs has the technique and the hunger to continually reach beyond.   Whether gently comping under a melodic bass solo or unwinding the melody to explore what lies beneath he engages us.  His probing left hand often pulls slightly back on what his right hand is playing and the tension created gives added impetus.  While his Classical compositions are informed by Jazz, the opposite is also true.  He will surely continue to do well in both worlds.

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As I left the club I picked up a copy of his Resurgence band’s ‘Duende’ album and put it on during the drive home.  It is an album of his own compositions.  What was immediately apparent was how well crafted the compositions were.  It was the sort of album that ECM might have released and the quality of the recording added to that impression.  As I listened on I heard some beautiful guitar work, not over stated but clean, inventive and crystalline.  Then I heard a human voice, wordlessly singing arranged lines as part the ensemble.  Easing over to the curb I picked up the album cover and flipped it over.

The personnel list would stop anyone in their tracks.  Mark Isaacs (piano), James Muller (guitars), Matt Keegan (reeds and percussion), Brett Hirst (bass), Tim Firth (drums), Briana Cowlishaw (vocal).  Matching this dream line up with those compositions was a masterstroke.   Muller and Isaacs communicate so very well.  It all made sense, the Kenny Wheeler connection, the skilled arranging and the promise of what may follow.   Mark Isaacs has the ears to absorb and the smarts to compose what works best for him.  This album certainly does.

Who: Mark Isaacs (piano, compositions, leader), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Frank Gibson Jr (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart, 1885 Basement, Auckland, New Zealand on 2nd October 2013.

Album and contact details: ‘Duende’ (Gracemusic GROO4)

Neil Watson Four @ CJC

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I love any music that can be termed ‘Space Jazz’ or ‘Space Funk’.  I have no idea if this is a real genre but I follow it anyhow.  Living through the era of Sputnik and being caught up in the excitement that followed I was nudged in that direction by the events of the day.  After that I zeroed in on space themed music.  Some of it was corny (Telstar) and some was grandiose (Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets’).  Not long after this I stumbled across Jazz and the sonic explorations perfectly fitted my longing for a music that evoked the wonders of space while encompassing the quirks of our humanity.   Music performed by artists who stood in awe at the edge of the universe and then stepped free of its limits.  IMG_8030 - Version 2

The Neil Watson Four is a recently formed Auckland band who have no fear of galactic explorations.  With the aid of a doogon (explained later), tenor saxophone, drum kit, upright bass and four overly fertile imaginations, they bent and pulled at the fabric of the universe.  This is a band that defies the norms and swallows genres whole.  There is no sense of deliberate eclecticism here and no self-conscious navel gazing.  It is original and you get the sense that what happens sometimes surprises the musicians.

The feeling is often that of organised chaos, a loose organic vibe that works well because they have entered into a collective state of being.  While Neil Watson pilots the ship there is no heavy controlling hand but his benign presence presides.  He has gifted his vision and let the possibilities unravel as they may.  IMG_8057 - Version 2

Neil Watson is not only a great guitarist but his sense of humour is original.  A sort of postmodern Zen; dropping casual asides into the banter in ways that confound.   The You Tube clip that I will post is ‘Renamed’.  When Neil announced that tune he casually added, “I hated the original name”.  This sort of humour leaves you momentarily confused and then laughing out loud.  They also played a lot of tunes named after children, girlfriends or spouses.   The tunes were all great and particularly ‘Renamed’ (Watson), ‘Eleanor’ (Dennison), ‘Rosie My Dear’ (Gibson) and ‘Theo’ (Allen).  There were ballads and country fare as well.  their rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ was so poignant that any Scots in the audience would have been fumbling in their sporrans for a tartan hanky.

Neil Watson is an original guitarist and he is at his best when a leader.  He brings a rag-tag of interesting sounds and ideas to the bandstand and then knits them together.  There is also something akin to Zorn in much of this material.  Once the skeletal structure and the overall concept is in place the music is liberated.  The interactions between men and machines are fluid and what the audience sees will never be repeated.   For this to work well he needs the right collaborators and he has certainly struck gold this time.  IMG_8044

Cam Allen usually plays alto but he is also a fine tenor player.   I have also seen him manipulate a Moog to great effect.  On Wednesday night he played a Buescher ‘Big B’ Aristocrat and it gave out an earthy, and slightly raspy sound.  Word has it that it is a tricky beast to play but it sounded just right for this gig.   I risk committing heresy here but a Selmer would have been too clean for this music.  His interesting modal explorations and his flow of ideas mark him out as a gifted player.  This is hardly surprising as he honed his craft on the highly competitive American Jazz scene.  In this band he doubled on ‘doogon’.   This is very much a ‘Kiwi’ thing and it is best described as an array of electronic and acoustic sound enhancements strapped to a hardware-store hand truck.  Resembling a cross between a Dalek and an IED with its glowing blue lights, digital clock console and multiple knobs (many strapped on with duct tape); it can envelop the audience with shrieks that resemble a Banshee at a rocket launch.  IMG_8075 - Version 2

All of the instruments including the drums feed into this machine and the effects are astounding.  On upright bass was the respected Tom Dennison who used his arco technique to very good effect.  This bowing worked well with the Doogon, which under Allen’s guidance resonated in ways that would have astounded the instruments makers.  Dennison has a lovely rich tone and we heard plenty of that.  What can never be overlooked are his compositional skills (See an earlier post on his ‘Zoo’ album).  For this gig he contributed the lovely ‘Eleanor’ which he dedicated to his girlfriend.  He seldom appears at the CJC these days and it was a pleasure to see him there again.

Perhaps the biggest masterstroke was adding Frank Gibson Jr into the mix.  This inclusion of a drummer most known for his Post Bop chops may have raised a few eyebrows at first, but Gibson is no stranger to fusion.  He demonstrated just how perfectly he can execute this material and he showed us all what free and imaginative drumming looks like.  I heard a band member saying later that having Frank behind them, lifted the whole performance.   IMG_8050 - Version 2

I am an unreformed devotee of music like this and whether you call it Space Funk, Space Jazz, Eclectic Fusion or just wild music I will be its cheer leader.   This is an itch that just begged to be scratched and I am glad that Neil gave us a taste of it.  Besides the wilder numbers there were one or two ballads to balance out the program.  Overall it was a very satisfying experience.

It was somehow fitting that the band performed on the day that NASA verified that Voyager One had left our solar system and entered interstellar space.  

Who: The Neil Watson Four.  Neil Watson (guitar), Cam Allen (tenor, doogon), Tom Dennison (bass), Frank Gibson Jr (drums).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Building, Brittomart, Auckland.

Photographs by John Fenton & Ben McNicoll

Mike Nock + Roger Manins, Frank Gibson@ CJC

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It was sometime in early June when I first heard the news.  I was sitting with Roger, talking music and shooting the breeze about who we rated.  Suddenly he half turned and said, “Mikes coming back to do a CJC gig”.  The words hung in the air like a siren song and for me the impatient waiting began from that moment.  If Mike Nock was coming to town there would be magic aplenty.  That’s what it meant.  That is what it has always meant.

The word seeped out, first to the music students and then to the wider world, like ripples in an ever-widening arc.  The club would be full that night.

Closer to the gig Roger asked Mike who he wanted in the band.  They quickly settled on a trio format, not your usual piano trio but one with piano, tenor saxophone and drums.   Roger Manins on tenor, Frank Gibson on drums.  Mike had jettisoned the anchor for this gig and he was quite definite about that, no bass.   This is a challenging lineup for a pianist (and for the other band members) because no-one is there to hold the centre.   If you slip there is greater distance to fall.  In this different space wonderful things can also happen and they did.  This was a night among nights.

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Barely able to contain my impatience I rolled into the club foyer three-quarters of an hour early.   The queue was already snaking back past the basement stairway and well into the upstairs bar.  A seething mass of eager faces.  When the doors finally opened there was Mike sitting sideways on the piano stool and Roger was blowing a few scales nearby.  The music stand sitting to one side abandoned, an unnecessary distraction, in a free ranging gig going where the music took it.

Before the first set I caught up with Mike, talking about his various projects (he was playing with a New Zealand string quartet the next night).  He told me that he was coming back to the CJC with his newest Australian trio in a few months.  Next time bass and drums.  We talked a bit about Jazz musicians from the past, Kiwi’s that he had played with and then the discussion shifted to the older pianists who straddled the swing to bop era.  Like all great pianists Mike lets the entire history of Jazz fall under his fingers and so I asked him about players like Hank Jones and Mary Lou Williams.  When I listen to them I hear such strong left hands, walking chords, syncopation, hinting at a time when ‘harlem stride’ was still an influence.  “The newer and stronger bass players changed that” said Mike.  “As the bass lines become stronger and pickups better the need for such dominant left hand work fell away.  There was too much conflict”.   As a non musician I had never considered that and it all made perfect sense.  I marvelled all the more that Be Bop/Post Bop greats like Hank Jones kept a touch of this earlier style and even when accompanied by strong bass players like Ray Brown, George Mraz and Ron Carter.   I wondered if we would ever see those strong left hand stylists again.   I soon got my answer.

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The set list was not really planned and it changed and evolved as the evening wore on.   The numbers selected were all standards, but they were somehow fresh, as if revealed for the very first time.   The first number was ‘When Your Smiling’ (Shay/Fisher/Goodwin 1889) and the second number was ‘Gone With The Wind’ (Allie Wrubel 1937).  Those two numbers coming together had me wracking my brain as to where I had heard them, heard them played together.  Then it came to me, they were both on one of the earliest of the Brubeck Quartet albums.   ‘Dave Brubeck at Storyville 1954’ was a wild live recording that lacked polish but oozed soul and immediacy.  Afterwards Mike announced  that a Brubeck album had inspired him to play that number – bingo.  These are the connections we love.   If you ingest a large dollop of Jazz history the memories will reward you.  IMG_7901 - Version 2

As they played through the first set I realised that the lack of a bass had not impeded them at all.  There it was, that strong left hand of Hank Jones, working the mid lower register while wonderful modern chords and runs flew from his darting right hand.   This was a master class for the senses to grapple with, giving us an unparalleled taste of Jazz piano mastery from an oblique angle.  No matter what Mike threw his way Roger matched it as they danced in and out of reach like well matched prize fighters .  These two have an uncanny level of communication.  It was even more evident later when they played ‘Softly as a Morning Sunrise” (Romberg/Hammerstein).  They had been considering what to play next when Frank Gibson suggested it.  Heads nodded in agreement and Frank set the number up nicely with a melodic intro on his traps.   “We will just see where this goes” said Mike, “could be anywhere”and he proceeded to pick at the bones of the melody.   Where it went was somewhere wonderful.  This is where the magic truly occurred, a moment to be savoured by all present.

They had begun the number, sparingly at first, soon more purposefully.  The level of interplay increased as they unpicked the tune.  Soon all three were working and pulling at the tune like it was a joyful game.  As Roger soloed I watched the trio inching up the intensity by degrees.  At first Roger had tapped out time with his right foot as he played, now he was pawing at the ground like a bull about to charge.   Mike was rocking madly and then standing and dancing some crazy dance.  Frank too was rolling with the beat.  By now they were way outside – blowing free of all constraints.   It was a moment to savour.  The moment.

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As I watched these three, so attuned, a thought struck me,  Mike Nock is originally from Ngaruawahia, Roger from Waiuku.   These two small country towns are close to each other.  What are the odds that rural New Zealand would produce two musicians of this quality.  Maybe it was something in the upper Waikato water supply?

When Jazz musicians are enjoying themselves there are always moments of hilarity, but on this night the best moment came from an unexpected quarter.   The CJC was full, so full  that dozens of people were turned away at the door due to the fire regulations. Outside it was winter, but inside it was hot as hell.  Mike by now stripped to his T-shirt asked if there was any talcum powder for his hands, which were slippery from the exertion.   Caro Manins duly produced a talcum powder container.  Mike wrestled with the lid for a few minutes and then handed it to someone else to unscrew.   Bigger and younger blokes stepped forward in turn, each saying that they were up to the task, but none could dislodge that damn lid.  “Take it back to the shop” said one, “it’s a faulty product”.  At this point a diminutive young woman took the container from the frustrated men, gently flicked off the child proof lock and opened it.  Men often forget the golden rule in these situations, ask a woman.  IMG_7936 - Version 2

During the second set Kim Paterson and Brian Smith sat in for a number or two.   Kim and Brian go back a long way with Mike and both have recorded with him.

As the enjoyment washed over me I could hear the words of Sean Wayland from a month earlier as he announced his gig.  “New Zealand I would like to thank you for Mike Nock”.   With you on that brother.

Who: Mike Nock with: Roger Manins & Frank Gibson Jr.

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 24th July 2013

And a clip by Jen Sol from the same gig:

Pretty in Blues – Molly Ringwald @ The Tuning Fork

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A month ago an LA based Jazz Journalist friend emailed me to say that Molly Ringwald was coming to Auckland.  I learned that she would be singing a selection of Jazz Standards from the ‘Great American Songbook’.  He suggested that I should hook up with her arranger and pianist Peter Smith and we duly made contact.   After that I watched for the promotional material to hit the papers and I was not surprised to see that there was a heavy focus on Molly’s former life as an actress.  It is almost a reflex action for the print media to pose the question;  yes she is a Hollywood celebrity and we loved her in this and that role,but can she sing?  I determined from that point on that I would focus solely on the music and leave the Hollywood trivia to the experts.

There are a number of things that can make or break a vocal artist and foremost among these is their ability to connect emotionally with an audience.  Their choice of material and arrangements and the quality of the supporting musicians is also paramount.   It should not surprise anyone to learn that Molly Ringwald can sing well, because she has been singing all of her life.   First as a child with her Jazz Pianist father Bob Ringwald and later in big Broadway productions.   Being multi-talented is not that unusual in the acting fraternity.   Singing Jazz however is a riskier path and one that is not embarked upon lightly.  It is seldom if ever the road to riches and the audiences are filled with armchair critics.  Especially if the vocalist is a movie star.

Molly can sing beautifully.  She also found ways to connect with her audience by telling a mixture of personal anecdotes and engaging stories about the songs.  The choice of material was also solid, as it mixed the well-known with the lessor known ‘songbook’ standards.  All of the material suited her voice but some especially so.

She opened with Dorothy Fields ‘exactly like you’ but it was the second number that really caught my attention.  It was Hoagy Carmichael’s  ‘I get along without you very well’.  I pride myself on knowing the stories behind standards, but this ‘songbook’ story as told by Molly was quite new to me.  Evidently a woman in the audience had thrust a poem into Hoagy’s hand after a concert.  He forgot about the poem and then rediscovered it months later.  After reading the poem he felt that he had to record a version and so he wrote music for it.  The problem that then presented itself was how to find this unknown lyricist.  That’s where broadcaster Walter Winchell came in.  The woman was eventually located and it turned out that the poem was not about a relationship that had gone sour, but about dealing with loss after her husband died.  After this poignant story the song took on a new life for me and Molly managed to convey that well.

Next up was ‘They Say Its Spring’ (Marty Clark/Bob Haymes).  Blossom Dearie absolutely owned this song and while this version was not a slavish copy of Blossom’s , it clearly alluded to that version.   I loved it.  As the sets unfolded we heard; ‘My Old Flame’ (Johnson/Coslow), Don’t Explain (Billie Holliday), ‘Mean to Me’ (Fats Waller), ‘I’ll Take Romance’ (Rogers/Hart) , ‘It Never Entered My Mind’ (Rogers/Hart), ‘If I were a Bell’ (Frank Loessor), ‘The Very Thought of You’ (Ray Noble), ‘Just You Just Me’ (Greer/Klages), and ‘Ballad of The Sad Young Men’ (Landesman/Wolf).  Not from the songbook was a carefully arranged version of ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ (Simple Minds)

I like many versions of ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men’, but Anita O’Day, Roberta Flack, and Keith Jarrett’s versions are particularly fine.  Molly Ringwald’s version compares very favourably with these.  This is not a torch song but a world-weary reflection on the emptiness that consumed the lives of many young men after the war (like ‘Lush Life’ in sentiment).  Delivering such a powerful song to an audience expecting a lighter fare requires courage and skill and Molly nailed it.

Behind these songs were some very clever arrangements and with charts written specifically for the album and tour.  These are the work of the respected LA pianist/arranger Peter Smith.   Peter has worked with Molly for some time and so he understood exactly what is required.   He is a talented pianist with great chops but he followed the most basic rule of all.  An accompanist must never get in the way of the singer.  It is matter of utilising just the right voicings and the chord placement must accent the singer’s performance not dominate it.  Whether comping or taking a brief solo Peter was always tasteful.   Not every accompanying pianist knows how to perform their duties so skilfully.  The next night I invited Peter to a newly opened Jazz venue and he sat in with local musicians.   In this situation he was able to let loose and he did, keyboards not withstanding.

Two well-known Auckland musicians completed the rhythm section for the Auckland leg of the tour; Tom Dennison (bass) and Frank Gibson Jr (drums).  Tom has worked with many international artists and his fulsome rich tone and perfect base lines added enormous value to the performance.  He often works with vocalists.  Frank is also very experienced at working with offshore visitors and like Tom he has worked with many vocalists over the years.   His brush work on this night was especially fine as it whispered and propelled in equal turns.  Together they made for a good swinging lineup.

For just a moment I had a window into that glamorous world long past where the likes of June Christy mesmerised audiences.   And yes Molly Ringwald is still stunningly beautiful.   The 16-year-old Molly with the red hair and the alluring smile still shines through her more mature self.  Her stage presence won’t hurt her Jazz career a bit, but it is her ability to keep singing at this level that will keep her recording and us listening.

What: ‘Except Sometimes’ by Molly Ringwald

Where: ‘The Tuning Fork’, Vector Arena Auckland 13th June 2013

Brian Smith @ CJC Jazz April gig

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It is always great to see the renowned tenor player Brian Smith performing in the intimate space of the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) and whenever he plays older and newer fans turn up to see him.   While it is tempting to refer to him as being ‘seasoned’ or ‘an elder statesman’, any notion of that has a built-in redundancy factor.   He is a ball of energy and ageless on the bandstand.

Brian has played with so many great artists over his long career that it would chew up serious bandwidth to enumerate even half of them.  Being a member of the Maynard Ferguson band and numerous other well-known line-ups saw him playing across the world.    His co-led genre stretching ‘Nucleus’ (with Ian Carr) won the top European band award at the Montreux Jazz Festival (1970).  Since returning to New Zealand to settle (if a musician ever really does that) he has worked on numerous film scores and put out some well received (and commercially successful) albums.  IMG_6561 - Version 2

Accompanying him on the 10th April gig were Kevin Field (piano), Kevin Haines (bass) and Frank Gibson Jr (drums).    With this particular lineup he could dive deeper into his favoured repertoire of Hard Bop Jazz standards (with a few originals thrown in).  When ‘Footprints’ was played Brian Smith approached the warhorse in an interestingly oblique manner; giving us a tune that contained the merest hint of familiarity and a large dollop of brooding mystery.  This was a highpoint of the sets and a good example of how good musicians can extract new wine from old bottles.  The introduction began with a very personalised statement on tenor which caught the attention while offering no insight into where it was going.  Then out of nowhere the melody was stated, only to disappear as quickly as it had appeared; merged in probing re-haromonisations and oblique explorations.

The tunes of Wayne Shorter have remained perennially popular with Jazz audiences and they are constantly being reworked and updated.  I have heard two versions of ‘Footprints’ performed in recent weeks and both mixed the familiar with the the new.  These re-workings of familiar tunes have always been the bread & butter of Jazz and in the case of reworked ‘Footprints,’ Wayne Shorter sets the bar high.  I saw him perform this in Verona, Italy a few years ago and after laying out a pathway to the melody he suddenly plunged us into a world of elision; forcing us to fill in the gaps as we listened.  A familiar tune floating between chasms of crystalline emptiness; a tune more implied than played.   I have posted a You Tube clip of the Brian Smith band playing  ‘Footprints’  at the 10th April CJC gig.

IMG_6564 - Version 3Accompanying Brian on piano was Kevin Field who is so well-respected about town that he is a real drawcard in his own right.   I have often mentioned his ability to add value to any band he plays with and this night was no exception (A post on his April 17th gig will be up shortly).  On bass was Kevin Haines who is not only the most experienced bass player about town but one of the best.  lastly there was Frank Gibson Jr on drums who is another respected and talented veteran Jazz identity about Auckland.     Frank Gibson Jr, Kevin Field and Kevin Haines have all appeared recently leading groups.  These guys will always impress and they proved that on this gig.

This particular CJC gig fitted in perfectly with the wider Jazz April ethos which is about profiling Jazz & Improvised music in all its diversity.    The month had kicked off with a co-led trio featuring guitar, bass and drums (all original music by Samsom/Nacey/Haines), A few days later we saw Nathan Haines at the ‘Q’ Theatre (a tentet complete with French horns and vibes) – a few days after that the Auckland ‘Jazz & Blues club’ featured a gig with a Caribbean-Jazz ensemble. The Kevin Field trio on the 17th.  Auckland benefits from a rich sonic diversity and clubs like the CJC, The Auckland Jazz & Blues Club and Vitamin ‘S’ deserve our ongoing support.  The month of Jazz April will conclude with two avant-garde bands (one local, the ‘Kparty Spoilers of Utopia’) at Vitamin ‘S’ on the 23rd at 8pm and one visiting from Australia (Song FWAA) which is a CJC gig on the 24th at 8pm.   This is a cornucopia of riches and not one of these gigs should be missed.  Note: The Vitamin ‘S’ gig is the last chance to see John Bell vibist, who departs for Korea on Thursday.

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Who: the Brian Smith Quartet – Brian Smith (tenor), Kevin Field (piano), Kevin Haines (bass), Frank Gibson Jr (drums)

Where and When: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Building, Brittomart 10th April 2013

This is a Jazz April 2013 gig : links Jazz April or Jazz Journalists Assn FB page.