CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium, Straight ahead

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

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Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Large Ensembles, Post Millenium

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

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Straight ahead

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

Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, experimental improvised music, Fusion & World

The Circling Sun

Circling Sun 11-3-2014 063Any astronomer worth their salt will tell you that it is paradoxical for a sun to embark on a circular orbit. The last time this happened was during the Spanish Inquisition. On Wednesday the paradox increased when the Circling Sun departed their orbit to play at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club). This gig had been a long time coming and we welcomed it. Hearing them away from the babble of the hard-drinking Ponsonby Road crowd was a treat for us. The Circling Sun always give of their best, but this time we could hear the quirks and subtleties unfiltered. This is a band with a vast soundscape and the Jazz club echoed to the sounds of doogan, Tuba, analogue keyboards, digital keyboards, piano, trumpet, flugel horn, flute, tenor Circling Sun 11-3-2014 066saxophone, upright bass, drums and electronics. This is the type of music that sits well with me.

In spite of the name, the Circling Sun is not solipsistic. Not locked into an inwards gazing spiral. A dictionary definition tells us that Solipsism is a spiralling madness that no-one else can enter. Theirs is an inclusive madness of serendipitous happenstance. A band where personnel changes are as seamless as flowing water and where the only truly unchanging thing is the name. A band that can appropriate sounds and recreate them into new musical forms and all achieved without fear or favour. Another-world to experience.

The group cited influences as far-flung as Alice Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, Randy Western and Tom Waits. Although the link is possibly fanciful on my part, perhaps the influence Cosmic Jazz/Funk is present, an obscure genre close to my heart. They are chaotic, loose and free atCircling Sun 11-3-2014 074 times; then out of nowhere come tasty arranged melodic heads. Deftly extracted from the frequent mesmerising groove laden vamps.

Cameron Allen should be heard more often in settings like this. He is a gifted saxophonist and winds player with great musical ideas, often imparting a raw energy. He is also drawn to home-assembled electronic wizardry as many in this band are.  Finn Scholes on horns is another who doubles atypically (including tuba, keys and piano). He has recently been overseas and since returning I have seen him perform on a number of occasions.  His articulation is always interesting and he has a rich sound. Tinged with the vibrato of the mariachi trumpet. A sound which he owns and one that fits the bands vibe perfectly.  Circling Sun 11-3-2014 070

Neil Watson like Cameron Allen is a mainstay of this band. His classic fender, augmented lately by pedal steel guitar. The latter adding colour and texture and above all adding that warm embracing feel of country. Anyone who has followed Frisell’s journeys, fusing Jazz with country americana will get this. Rui Inaba on bass is often encountered with Watson and frequently in this lineup. Here he sits solidly at the heart of the storm, maintaining the rhythmic groove unfazed.  Circling Sun 11-3-2014 062The most powerful presence is drummer Julien Dyne. A versatile gifted artist who has travelled and recorded widely. His beats while often referencing his multi genre background, urge the band to greater heights. It is a privilege to see drummers of this calibre and I hope that he continues with open-ended Jazz projects like this. I have heard him on numerous occasions and I like what I hear.  As a unit, this combination takes no prisoners and the audience were glad of it. The first guest to join them was J Y Lee who quickly settled in on baritone saxophone. He often plays with the Circling Sun and is a popular addition.Circling Sun 11-3-2014 075During the second set a great gig got even better. Jonathan Crayford arrived and without too much persuading, sat in on piano. This was met with obvious delight by the audience, as Crayford is extremely popular. He knew none of the tunes as they were mostly originals and there was virtually no sheet music to guide him. It didn’t matter. Someone would announce the key and then a few chords in he would locate the heart of the tune. A musician of his experience and gifts is no stranger to situations like this. The audience, clearly wild about the gig, were by now whooping with enthusiasm between numbers. When Crayford sat in they felt like they’d won the lottery. He doesn’t get home often, but improvised music fans are eager to soak up what ever they can get of him.

Who: Circling Sun – Cameron Allen (tenor sax, flute, keys, doogan), Finn Scholes (Trumpet, Flugel, tuba, Piano, Keys), Neil Watson (Fender guitar, pedal steel guitar), Rui Inaba (upright bass), Julien Dyne (drums, electronics) – guests: Jonathan Crayford (piano, keys), J Y Lee (alto sax, baritone sax).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 11th March 2015

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium

Asher Truppman Lattie / J Y Lee emerging artist series

IMG_1936 - Version 2

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