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.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.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.
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.
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