Zoo: Tom Dennison

‘Zoo’ is bassist Tom Dennison’s first album as leader and it is a thing of beauty. This is a concept album and such albums focus around a theme. The very best of them stimulate the imaginings as well; leading the listener into subtle dreamscapes that can shift and change endlessly. ‘Zoo’ does that.

Five of the seven tracks are named after animals, but we get no sense that these are the anthropomorphic playthings of humans. The Stingray, Owl, Llama, Cat and Antelope all gain distinct lives of their own; that not withstanding the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The first thing that the purchaser will notice is the exceptional art-work & design (by Caravan + Vivienne Frances Long). While the album can be purchased as a download, it would be a shame to miss out on the 3-fold cover or the best fidelity option. Every part of this album belongs together and perhaps that is its genius.

Once again the Auckland Jazz scene has surpassed itself and with these musicians it is hardly surprising. I know and admire most of the band members and Tom could hardly have picked better. There are a number of firsts as far as I can see and this being Toms debut album, the most obvious one. I have seen Tom Dennison play around town, but the first time I saw him was at an ‘Alan Broadbent‘ concert in the Auckland town hall. When the trio played ‘My Foolish heart‘ I could imagine Scotty La Faro nodding in approval – so perfectly did Tom execute the piece. He also played with pianist Mike Nock and not long after that went to New York to study with Larry Grenadier and the equally renowned Kiwi Bass player Matt Penman. It was after this sabbatical that he returned home to work on the ‘Zoo’ album and the results of his efforts are available for all Jazz lovers to enjoy. With chops and writing skills like this he was never going to disappoint.

I am pleased that the album features the New Zealand born but Sydney based pianist Steven Barry on piano. He is an astonishing musician and to have him recorded this well is pure bliss. While comparisons are often odious I cannot help but place him stylistically somewhere between Steve Kuhn and Brad Mehldau. When he played at the CJC a few months ago he floored us all. Those that knew him nodded with an “I told you so” look – while those who were less familiar became fans for life. This guy can breathe new life into any old warhorse and his own compositions amaze. He is a shaman of the keyboard and a perfect foil for the other players. He demonstrates this time and again as the album unfolds.

We also get to hear him in trio format on the final track. ‘The secret life of Islands‘ is intensely beautiful and it leaves you wanting more. This is the perfect bookend to the album. Introducing a song about an Island rounds off the ‘Zoo’ concept perfectly and gives it another Kiwi reference point. In my view the song could not have been written by anyone other than a Kiwi.

Also appearing is the gifted and much admired guitarist Peter Koopman Jr. Peter is both tasteful and innovative on this album and his long intelligent probing lines mark him out as a born improviser. His maturity as a player is more than evident here. Sadly for us he is to depart for Sydney in a week and that is Australia’s gain.

The veteran of the lineup is Roger Manins and he always pleases. We have come to expect Roger to play like there is no tomorrow and to play what is appropriate to whatever lineup he is in. On this recording he gives us his best and that is most evident on the ballad (track 5). Any song called the ‘The cat’ was always going to work for me and I was especially pleased with this composition. Roger plays this so convincingly that it sounds like a much-loved and familiar tune. That is also due to the skill of the writing.

The drummer Alex Freer is the remaining quintet member. I have not seen him play live, but he is like his band-mates, perfectly suited to the job in hand. I realise now that Alex, Tom, Peter and Steven have played together for a long time, because You Tube clips show them performing in their mid teens.

This album is New Zealand’s own version of ‘Empyrean Isles‘ and like Herbie’s album I am hoping that a ‘part two’ will be recorded someday . Perhaps featuring a rare and secretive pelagic bird like the New Zealand Storm Petrel?. Those particular birds were hidden in plain view and lived a secret life on nearby islands for 100 years. This album has been discovered from the moment of its inception and it will hopefully suffer no such fate.

Once again thanks to Rattle Records’ and to Steve Garden for recording this so beautifully. Order from http://www.rattlejazz.com

Touching greatness: ‘Jazz Life’ Photography

When a musician reaches higher than other mortals to give us a glimpse of an unknown truth, we marvel at the invention and the daring.  It is human to seek connection with greatness because we want to experience that sound again; weighing up what we have witnessed and desiring to understand it better. In the hands of the most gifted practitioners of the Jazz arts this connection can be made through photography, painting or the print media.  If the ink, paint or emulsion is spilt for the sake of it then the magic is not communicated, but if the photographer is William Claxton and the wordsmith is Joachim Berendt then we are deeply enriched. In 1960 Claxton and Berendt undertook a massive road journey in a Cadillac; traveling the highways of America and capturing the ‘Jazz Life‘. Berendt is a respected musicologist and between them they recorded something else; an unvarnished glimpse into the America of the time.   This is Americana in print and it gives a deep context to the music.

When viewing Claxton photographs we feel that we can almost touch the soul of the artist and while some of the portraits are deliberately posed they still convey the deepest sense of casual intimacy.  This is the very essence of greatness that we have been seeking and we feel lucky to have these images, this music and these stories in our lives.  It makes us part of the Jazz Life; insiders.

This is a truly great book in all senses of the word. It stands knee-high in its slipcase and weighs enough to have been the subject of warnings by physiotherapists.  Once it has been safely transported home (using a heavy haulage transporter) and the (momentary) feelings of guilt at outlaying so much on one book have been overcome, get a friend to help you lift it onto the table.

The joy then unfolds page by wonderful page; touching greatness through the eyes of William Claxton.  A journey into the heart of the American Jazz Life

Disclaimer: I certainly did not outlay the $1,500 per copy that the TASCHEN collectors edition sells for at Amazon, but I refuse to say what I actually paid on the grounds that could get me into trouble at home if I did.

Healing Jazz; Katrina and other natural disasters

At a time when we are facing one natural disaster after another, music is a healing force.   Where jazz is concerned  that feels especially so and it is not surprising as the music arose out out of the miseries of slavery and transcended that abomination.  While the depths of sadness may have informed early jazz, it was in the end a joyful and healing music.   This power to surprise and to give pleasure also applies to the arts surrounding jazz.  I recently purchased the large coffee table book ‘Jazz’ by Herman Leonard.    Herman Leonard is arguably the greatest of jazz photographers and that is no small claim in a field already crowded with photographic genius.   Anyone possessing a reasonably sized jazz CD or LP collection will have sighted Leonard’s work even if they did not know it was him. His powerful images of jazz musicians have appeared on many an album cover and and no book about jazz is complete without a few Herman Leonard photographs.

Late one night in 1949 Leonard, a skinny jewish kid, son of migrants, turned up at the Royal Roost club and the pictures he took pleased the performing artists.   The artists were Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.  Quincy Jones said “I used to tell cats that Herman Leonard did with his camera what we did with our instruments”.    Even before success came, the musicians loved having him around as he made them look good.

Herman Leonard was in his eighties when hurricane Katrina destroyed his home in New Orleans and along with it his vast archives (including 10,000 prints).   Without hesitation he continued his important work which he described as ‘creating an image of what he was hearing’.   His record of the Jazz life is beyond compare.    Herman Leonard died in 2010.

After Katrina the Jazz musicians of New Orleans organised a number of concerts to lift peoples spirits and above all to convince them that the old ‘Latin Quarter’ had life in it yet.  Being able to swing so mightily in the face of terrible adversity is what jazz is about.  A profound music that reaches beyond the moment.


Google Herman Leonard for more images;