‘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