Jazz Journalists Association, Review

Journalism, Digital Futures and Music

Garden Jan 2nd (14)While it is easy to feel discouraged by the state of the music industry and to agonise over the plight of long-form investigative journalism, there are pathways through the morass. Better alternatives, however tentative are forming and the emergence of more equitable models a possibility. These debates are worth having and the creative sector needs to become more vocal and activist. Everything of value is at stake here and the market rationalists will happily plunder the creative sector if artists and consumers leave them to it. As we ponder the challenges it is tempting to think of the music world as being too broken to fix. Acquiescence and inertia are the antithesis of creativity. The artists and journalists who care about this must do what we do best – confront, shock, overwhelm stupidity, dispense joy, start revolutions; throwing in the towel is for those devoid of imagination and banality produces nothing worthwhile.Maria Schneider  I recently watched two thought-provoking documentaries on the fate of the book and of in-depth journalism. ‘Out of Print’ and ‘Stop the Presses’. The first threw up a lot of intriguing questions, while the second provided some answers. Every new media platform brings with it a multitude of doom sayers and the invention of the printing press was no exception. Books have been with us for over four thousand years and while there are few local book-shops left in 2016, there are more books being printed than ever. The ability to record data and preserve it is the greatest of human achievements and the modern world rests upon it. In spite of determined efforts throughout history to burn books or to shut down the information flow, knowledge and information proliferates.

The tablets and engravings of antiquity are the most durable as the oldest texts known to us are readable today (the Hittite Linear B clay tablets). While a surprisingly large number of ancient books and texts survive, some modern attempts to ‘save the book’ have fallen flat on their face. Recently libraries rushed to put their catalogues into the CD Rom format. This marvel of modern technology was the answer to saving the printed word and so encyclopaedias and written texts were laboriously digitised. As suddenly as it appeared the platform vanished and a technical museum is now the only place where you can find a CD Rom reader (or a floppy disc). The ways of storing music, although covering an infinitely smaller time span have a comparable history. Platforms that seemed forever solutions came and went while the music migrated to newer formats. This process will continue and the new formats are not the problem.

The player-piano was a real threat to live music as was the Edison cylinder. Live music survived and recorded music morphed into the 78/EP/LP/tape/CD/Digital download and cloud streamed content. The changes will continue, probably accelerate, but we have learned that the best of the older formats can co-exist with emerging forms. The printed newspaper will survive with the digital for many years to come. It will likely become prestigious; a symbol of quality like the re-created LP.  Platforms will come and go as music good and bad is created – this will continue until the end of time. The eternal conundrum remains.

Who will reap the benefits, who will pay the piper and how will distribution occur.

The second documentary ‘Stop the Presses’ featured interviews with forward-looking media identities. There was a deliberately left/liberal bias and the programme did not feature the likes of Murdoch. Those of Murdoch’s ilk are part of the problem and not the solution. The Editor of the New York Times, Guardian reporters, leading investigative journalists (such as those from the now defunct Rocky Mountain News) and a number of important European print media spokespeople gave their views.  In spite of the carnage and catastrophic job losses there were glimmers of hope.

Immediately after World War Two ‘Le Monde’, the premiere French evening paper created a new model. Their charter ensured that no media barons like Lord Beaverbrook, Randolph Hearst or Rupert Murdock could ever exert editorial control. The paper ran along the lines of a worker collective and only the journalists (who had tenure) could choose the editor – elections were held for the post. Investors could invest but they could not exert influence. Sadly Le Monde ran into financial difficulties as the digital revolution bit harder and during a recent bailout new financial investors strove to exert editorial control – the staff refused and that situation has yet to play out.

One digital news-media outlet ‘Mediapart’ is particularly interesting. The editor (a former editor of Le Monde) Jerome Calhuzac puts up convincing arguments for a model better suited to the digital age. This digital only outlet has a rapidly growing circulation and it is successful by any measure. The business model is similar to the early Guardian and Le Monde – managed and owned by the reporters and the editor – the creators of content. It has a strict pay-wall, contains no advertising and employs the highest quality investigative journalists. Mediapart offers in-depth opinion pieces and makes no apology for having a point of view. It rejects advertising outright as that can influence editorial integrity. It does not see its role as outlining the broad sweep of daily events. It focuses instead on the important news stories, examines them in-depth and is beholden to no-one. Investors are welcome to a point, but they have no influence. Fifty percent of the cost of getting out print newspapers was in the distribution. Under a digital model that cost is infinitesimal and efficient high quality newspapers are now possible (more on distribution later). The only remaining obstacle is a generation of readers who expect quality information without having to pay for it. 

Calhuzac sees the enemy as being the ‘entertainment’ model; driven by the relentless neo-rationalist imperatives of the marketplace. Mediapart’s mission is simple. ‘We are a cornerstone of democracy and as such independence and fearlessness is everything. We do this because it is our duty to humanity and to the fabric of democracy. It is not just about the journalists, the editors or the readers but a commitment to the principles of democracy’. Crucially the paper determined that quality has never come free of charge and that everyone must contribute a fair share – this is a public good – it has a price just as democracy has a price’. The subscribers agreed and have responded extremely well. ‘Trying to provide quality content for free has never worked and we avoid that trap’. Free content funded by advertisements is a flawed approach leading to a once-over-lightly product – an overload of fragmented information of undesirable quality. In short news as sound-bite entertainment.

Giving content away free was a bold but flawed experiment. It was a recipe for dumbing down and the new aggregated sites like the Huffington Post pillaged the content from other newspapers. When doing this they not only steal but they close down the very newspapers they steal from. As the aggregator websites don’t pay investigative reporters (to replace those being laid off by their actions), that content will eventually vanish. Musicians, independent labels and informed music consumers will see the parallels here.

This is exactly what is occurring in the music world and the equivalent of the Huff Post and to a lesser extent Buzz Feed are the digital streaming platforms. Most are parasitic and return nothing of value to the creators of the music. You Tube is a little different as it can act as a feeder to artist run websites, independent labels and offer teasers. Some users go too far and put up whole albums without the artists permission. It is popular but as a business model it struggles.

To bring this full circle, I received my copy of Maria Schneider’s latest album, ‘The Thompson Fields’ yesterday. The album won the best of category in the prestigious NPR poll and is receiving accolades from the various music industry papers. It was not produced by a major label and yet it is one of the most beautiful albums you will ever hear(or see). The label is ‘Artists Share’ – a cooperative run by musicians and their associates – interacting directly with the consumer. ‘The Thompson Fields’ is a rich convergence of the arts as it features fine art prints, poetry, extraordinary photographs, old maps on art paper and well written prose. It is also stakes out a strong environmental position without being preachy. This is an album of rare beauty and it even smells like a rare book (the album booklet has aged patterned end papers). Schneider’s album gives us extraordinary music (performed by nineteen of the improvising worlds best) but it also has detailed liner notes, credits for the musicians, various collaborations with artists, poets, photographers and a connection to like minded community organisations.Garden Jan 2nd (15)If such an extraordinary album can rise to the top utilising a fan-funded artist controlled model there is hope. Progress is painfully slow but these projects can work. The Artist-Share label is not a recent innovation and the model doesn’t yield quick results. If better focused and more equitable distribution models developed then the high-end independents could gain a significant foothold in the market. There is a feel good factor in associating ourselves with models like this.

The New Zealand equivalent is Rattle Records. Like ECM it knows what it stands for and provides a consistently beautiful product. This is surprising given its reach. Like Schneider’s album (and ECM albums), Rattle has retained either liner notes (or quality photography) – even poetry appears on occasion. I declare a vested interest in this as my photographs, liner notes and poems have featured on a number of Jazz albums.

This convergence of music journalism, compelling art and high quality musicianship provides for a richer experience. It is possible for the digital download format to deliver liner notes, musicians credits and artwork but it seldom does. I would happily pay a few extra dollars to get such an enhanced version. Above all it is grossly disrespectful to the musicians when their names are excluded from download information. As the old models fail and the greedy few extract the lions share of revenue (without permission), the consumers of music need to become better informed. This is the point that Jerome Calhuzac of Mediapart makes. The listening public needs to grasp the fact that quality offerings have a cost. Lets get behind Rattle Records and other labels like Artists Share – where ever possible we should become ‘commissioners’ (a term used by Schneider for fan-based contributors).

The missing piece of the puzzle is distribution and as with Mediapart subscribers have a role. Buzz Feed gives us some clues here. Powerful algorithms can detect trends and this has a multiplier effect when an album is noticed. Those observing a trend then recommend the album to those with similar tastes. At present those algorithms serve the big players like Amazon but there is no reason why the technology could not work across the non Amazon Indie Label spectrum. New (albeit clumsy) distribution models utilise platforms like Facebook, Twitter and other vehicles.

It is often commented upon that I am a ‘busy’ Facebook user and blogger. There is a method in my madness. I have a respectable readership on my JL32 blog site. I also host a small Facebook group page and have a Twitter account. The people who follow my sites often take up my recommendations and hopefully this assists distribution. The consumers are increasingly a key factor in distribution and everyone should tout their musical recommendations to like-minded friends. Leaving it up to disinterested money men is not an option.

Lets ramp up the dialogue around streaming and the problems arising from free content. Paying a fair price for quality music is our duty to the creative arts. Support the independent musician run labels, recommended albums online and sponsor (crowd fund) a musician that you respect. We are all in this together.

 

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CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Jazz April, Piano Jazz, Straight ahead

Mark Isaacs 2015 @ CJC

Mark Isaacs 072Mark Isaacs is an important and highly respected Australian musician and it was a pleasure to see him in Auckland again. It was October 2013 when he last visited and since then he has been busy with the presentation of his symphony and a number of other noteworthy projects. He is a celebrated Jazz and classical musician and he continues to excel in both genres. Musicians like this are rare, as the two disciplines require very different approaches. When you talk to Isaacs you realise that he is passionate about both. He respects the art forms far too much to settle for anything less than his best. In either genre.

I once recall naively asking a visiting musician whether the ability to perform at the highest level on an array of difficult instruments was a unique skill. I have never forgotten the answer. “No it’s the outcome of hard work and an exponential increase in practice time. Every instrument you play is practiced equally and intensively’. I am certain that the same would apply to working across different genres.  That said, I suspect that attitude and aptitude are still somewhere in the mix.Mark Isaacs 071 (2)

Nothing annoys musicians more than being told that what they do is the result of a gift. It implies that the results come easily to them. Having great chops is only the starting point, as there is more to a successful Jazz musician than technique. Deep level communications are necessary and for a performance to work well, everyone must connect. Musician to musician and musicians to audience. Having something original to say and saying it well is something Mark Isaacs understands. Those performing at this level bring something unique to the equation. Something of themselves. An essence drawn from experience and an intuitive understanding of how time works. No matter how good a pianist, bass player or drummer, a piano trio is still a collaboration. Isaacs must have been happy with Holland and Samsom. They are two of our best musicians. Mark Isaacs 072 (2)

Isaacs comes from an exceptional musical family with a lineage stretching back to the Stephane Grapelli band and probably beyond that. Knowing the depth of his classical and Jazz heritage gives an added perspective to his multifaceted career trajectory.

I missed the first few numbers and arrived at the CJC just as the trio were warming up. The first number I heard was Kenny Dorham’s ‘Blue Bossa’. A much-loved standard that has remained extremely popular. Good improvising musicians extract gold from compositions like this (and often without needing to deviate far from the traditional chart). This was a night of wonderful standards played to perfection. Hearing a superb pianist and a solid rhythm section performing in such an intimate space is something Jazz fans live for. Everyone there experienced the warm glow. A warmth that only nights like this can impart. I truly wish Isaacs lived a lot closer. My appetite for his playing is far from being satisfied. Mark Isaacs 071 (4)My late arrival was due to a previous gig and as I walked in, the sound enveloped me completely. Before I had settled Ron Samsom had grinned in my direction, Oli Holland had poked out his tongue and Mark Isaacs had given a quick wave (mid solo). With those brief gestures the realisation swept over me that this club and these musicians are family. A. J. a club regular grabbed me in the break and said tongue in cheek, “Thank god your here man, the universe has realigned”.  Ron Samsom the drummer added, “Yeah it took us a while to settle because there were two strangers in YOUR chair and you were nowhere to be seen”. I guess I am like the guy who lives perpetually on the bar stool of his local bar.  Sort of Jazz furniture.

A performance of Mark Isaacs ‘Symphony’ has been professionally filmed and it was recently purchased by the ‘SKY Arts’ channel. It plays in New Zealand on the 10th June at 8pm.  Please support this important work by watching and perhaps writing to SKY Arts and saying how much we appreciate seeing material like this (The same for the recent Mike Nock/Contemporary Dance film on SKY Arts). These are important artists and landmark events. We live in a crass market-driven world where the Philistines try to dictate our taste. Without our support these amazing artists can struggle for wider recognition. Writing to encourage the purchase of such films is the least we can do by way of thanks. Remember, this works best as a collective enterprise and all of us have a role to play in this.

What: Mark Isaacs Trio – Mark Isaacs (piano), Oli Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand, Wednesday 22nd April 2015

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Interview, Jazz April, Piano Jazz

Jonathan Crayford – Making Pianos Sing

Jonathan Crayford Interview  (part one)

Jonathan Crayford 071 (2) When the luck runs your way, an interview with a musician will mysteriously transform itself into something more. If you know how to read the signals and respond appropriately, you find yourself traversing musical galaxies; places where words and musical ideas merge. I was acutely aware of this when I interviewed Jonathan Crayford recently. He is the ideal person to spend time with if you like to explore the improbable connections between seemingly unrelated things. It was an interview where the rhythms of the moment guided what we discussed and the best part of a day flew by before I knew it. This cerebral world is where Crayford prefers to live. He is perpetually on the road, dreaming up and shaping musical projects as he goes. His life is truly the troubadour’s life. As I probed him for insights, one episode in particular threw light on how serendipity and happenstance can guide him.

While living in Paris a few years ago, he reached the conclusion that the time had come to move on. Around this time he met a Catalan photographer and she invited him to perform at a Catalonian arts festival. When he asked how well it paid, she replied that they had no budget, but offered him a jar of marmite. Impulsively he packed up his belongings and moved to Spain. That began a fruitful creative collaboration that led to the photographer and Crayford doing gigs together in a number of European cities like Vienna.Jonathan Crayford 073I asked him why this type of project drew him so strongly. “I’ve been travelling for years and it’s the excitement of new projects and the risks associated with being in unfamiliar places that lures me. I like being in a new place, an exotic place, somewhere outside of my life’s experience. It is like a rebirth. New loves, new sounds new smells, new food and a new vantage point from which view life. The grist of creativity comes directly out of this”.

I had recently attended his concert at the Te Uru Waitakere Gallery where he was one of the featured artists in the ‘Black Rainbow’ concert series. I asked him about that and the carved piano, but as we talked the topic shifted to his quest for the perfect piano. His sense of reverence when talking pianos was palpable and he needed no encouragement to elaborate. “The acoustics of the room worked well for solo piano and the instruments bones are high-end Steinway. Here is a paradox though; the musician in me is always uncomfortable with carved or painted pianos. I understand that this is a wonderful piece of art, but the piano is already the ultimate piece of furniture. It is perfect in form and highly functional. Any alterations or adjustments should serve the sound. 

Pianos sing for me and I can hear when pianos are sad. I feel their sadness and work with it, but it still troubles me”.

He talked of pianos so reverently and I wanted more on this topic, so I asked him about some of his favourite types of piano; the special ones. “I find the Australian made Stuart & Sons piano extremely interesting. With such a presence of upper harmonics you really need a different approach to playing. That was my impression of the one I played. A wonderfully crafted instrument. A few months ago I travelled to Australia to meet up with Barney McAll who is back from New York. He is currently artist in residence for a year, having been awarded a Glanville-Hicks residency. They have a custom made Stuart & Sons piano there. It’s a wonderful instrument. Of course I love the high-end Steinways, Bosendorfers and Fazioli. I have also played a wonderful Schimmel.

(Note) The Stuart & Sons Piano is innovative, a breakthrough in mechanical design. The piano has more keys and possesses amazing harmonic accuracy at the high end. No one has managed to change the acoustics and range of a piano in a very long time. Many pianists who have played the instrument claim that Stewart and Sons have done just that.

I couldn’t resist teasing this theme out further; wanting his reaction to a strange story of piano destruction, so I asked. “I recently saw a short film of a man playing a nice Steinway piano beside the Red Sea. ‘Red Sea, Dead Sea’ it was called and I suppose it was an allegory for the conflict in the Middle East. After five minutes a hooded man appeared out of nowhere and started smashing the piano with a sledgehammer. What do you think of artists who smash a piano to make a political statement?”

”A momentary look of surprise crossed his face as he pondered on what I’d said. “What is that destruction shit about man? I just don’t get it. The point of a piano is to be played and played well. Played by someone who understands what a piano is about. I once saw a pianist slowly, respectfully and carefully dismantling a piano at a concert. As each piece was removed he would tap it or pluck it. Each section had a very distinct sound, a note, resonance. This was a deconstruction, but I understood that because it was an exploration of the instruments capability, not an act of wanton destruction. That piano was still singing. That particular act of dismantling was a musical chart”. Jonathan Crayford 072

Smashing pianos for political ends is definitely not Crayford’s thing.

During the afternoon we traversed everything from Pythagoras to planetary formation. The relationship between harmonic intervals and physical objects was especially fascinating to him, as was higher mathematics. “I will compose a piece based upon prime numbers one day”, he said. He also talked of constructing a new ‘mode’ map. His love for stories about quirky historical characters and for mathematics came together in his latest album ‘Dark Light’. ‘Galois Candle’ tells of a hapless mathematical genius and his struggle for recognition. The poignancy of the tale is reflected in every note. I have heard this played in a trio setting and solo. It is sublime either way.

Crayford’s ‘Dark Light’ album was a finalist in the New Zealand 2015 Vodafone music awards. The album is simply stunning and it deserves to be heard more. Crayford feels that the album has legs and he hopes that it has a way to run yet. These days it is not the quality of the music, but distribution and exposure problems that hold an album back. This album certainly deserves wider recognition.Jonathan Crayford 071On April 15th Crayford returned to the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), but this time without bass or drums. The gig was billed as ‘solo piano’ with special guest. Roger Manins joining him for the final numbers of the second set. This was a first for the CJC as the club has never hosted a solo piano gig before. Interestingly a slightly higher entry fee was placed on the door, but far from deterring people it signalled that something special was to occur. You could have heard a pin drop during the performance. This audience really listened and they were amply rewarded for their attentiveness. This highlights the growing sophistication of CJC audiences and above all it demonstrates the deep respect that we have for Crayford as a performer.

I have seen Crayford perform many times and his approach to performance is to step free of ego. He described it to me as ‘diving into the sound’. Crayford treats performance like a Zen monk treats a ‘Koan’. His musical puzzles are not solved by wrestling with them, but by absorption, by letting go. Living in a musical moment devoid of superficial baggage. While a modernist in his approach, he also touches upon something timeless. Perhaps Crayford is best described as a cosmic troubadour?

Solo performances are high wire acts and the freedom afforded by the format allows an artist to take us where they may. We heard probing thoughtful interpretations of seldom-heard Jazz compositions, original pieces and compositions from unlikely sources. One moment we were at the edge of the modern classical repertoire and at other times following the fabulous, choppy, stride-infected swing of Monk. Nothing sounded out of place and everything was explored with the same vigour. Crayford’s environmentally referencing composition ‘Earth Prayer’ was simply profound. The musical narrative enveloped us in its utter clarity. Such was its impact that time stood still while audience, piano and artist seemed to breathe as one.Jonathan Crayford 072 (1)The duo numbers with Roger Manins also worked well. These are master musicians and they know how to make the most of freedom and space. When a piano and tenor saxophone perform in duo, certain unique opportunities arise; the musicians must be acutely aware of nuances and the subtleties of interplay. What we heard was a deftly woven tapestry of sound, a respectful satisfying interaction. The duos started with a burner and ended with the perennial favourite ‘The ‘Nearness of You’ (Washington/Carmichael). During the last number there was a flood of noise from the upstairs bar. In spite of that the audience yelled for more; wishing that the gig could go on for ever.

(Part Two of this post to be posted later)

Who: Jonathan Crayford (piano) – guest Roger manins

Where: Interview in Waitakere – Solo Piano gig at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 15th April 2015 – Solo Piano, Te Uru Waitakere Gallery.2015voter-button

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Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, experimental improvised music, Post Millenium

Harry Himself visits the CJC

Harry Himself 11-3-2014 074I often detect a unique quality in New Zealand improvised music, but when it comes to defining it, the illusive essence dissolves before I can grab hold. ‘Harry Himself’ has brought me one step closer, connecting me with a tangible manifestation. This band is the perfect example of improvised ‘Kiwiana’. At first hearing you detect a melange of the familiar; elements of World, Fusion, Straight ahead, Post bop, Post millennial Jazz and all served up with a generous dollop of classic country. Listen more closely and you will get strong South Sea references, flashes of musical memory permeating every bar. Everything from Bill Sevesi to the ancient sounds of New Zealand indigenous music. Even song titles revolve around Kiwiana themes .  Many of the tunes belong to a place, to the Islands we live on and to the immense swath of sea that surrounds it. Like the harbours and oceans that surround us, this is a mosaic of glittering fragments. A familiar yet unknown music to gladden the heart.  Harry Himself 11-3-2014 058 (2)Above all this is a good-natured band, oozing charm and character. The array of instruments and the judicious use of loops and pedals more than doubles their range.  The only constant in the sounds are the six string bass and drums. The leader Kingsley Melhuish is sometimes seen in the company of adventurous avant-gardists. He can also be found among the free ranging Ponsonby Road improvising bands. His use of pedals and loops is tasteful and it serves the music not a whim. His pedal effects and electronics are not added randomly, nor for the sake of it. He is an accomplished horn Harry Himself 11-3-2014 070player, switching seamlessly between trumpet, flugelhorn, tuba, trombone and lately, a vast array of conch shells. Melhuish often sets up loops and then he plays over them with different horns.  This layering of sound is achieved well and the real-time harmonic overlay enables him to add considerable texture and breadth. Neil Watson does likewise, as he frequently moves between Fender guitar and pedal steel guitar. The day after the gig I called into the MAINZ recording studio to grab a few shots of the group laying down an album. I overheard the recording technician asking the band after a take, “How do you feel that went; do you want to listen before moving on”?  Immediately a voice came from the studio speaker, “No, I think we’ll do that one again. The Fender and the conch will work better together than the pedal steel on this track”.  A huge smile crossed the technicians face, “I’ve never heard that said in a studio before” he said.  They were Harry Himself 11-3-2014 068right and it reinforced a long-held view of mine; that no instrument is beyond the reach of Jazz and that no sound should remain un-pillaged. I always appreciate Sam Giles electric bass playing and I am always left with the feeling that he is scandalously under-utilised. Solid and groove based was what the band needed and solid and groove based was what they got. On drums was premier drummer Ron Samsom. He worked these beats like he always does, purposefully, skilfully and making it look second nature. I’m glad the band is recording this material and I have a feeling that the album could grow legs with the right exposure. I hope so, they are fun. Harry Himself 11-3-2014 059I have added two video clips of the band, which demonstrate the diversity of their material. While diverse, it never-the-less hangs together nicely. The fist clip is ‘Cy’s Eyes’ a tune composed for one of Melhuish’s children. The second tune is the wilder freer ‘Zornithology’. A tribute to John Zorn (with an obvious play on the title of a Bird tune). There was one tune I wish I’d captured on video and that was ‘Rose Selavy’ by Enrico Rava.  Man, what a hard-edged powerhouse romp that was.

Who: ‘Harry Himself‘ is Kingsley Melhuish (trumpet, flugel, tuba, trombone, conch’s), Neil Watson (Fender guitar, Pedal Steel guitar), Sam Giles (six string e-bass), Ron Samsom (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand 18th March 2015

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

Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Fusion & World

Tim Sellars ‘Mukhlisa’ @ CJC

CJC Feb 5 2014 055I have long been drawn to middle eastern music, having commented on it in earlier blog posts. There are many reasons to like this rich musical stream, but what draws me are the interactions that occur when eastern and western improvised traditions meet in mutual respect. This is often labeled as World/Jazz, but implying that it is new hybrid is somewhat problematic.  Both improvised traditions have deep roots and a successful meeting acknowledges this. The blend of Jazz and middle eastern music is mainstream in the Mediterranean regions but not as well-known elsewhere.  Adventurous artists like Dhafer Youssef, Rabih Abou-Khalil and Anouar Brahem have gained prominence in the west through collaborations with the likes of Kenny Wheeler, Charlie Mariano, Steve Swallow, Tigran Hamasyan, Marcin Wasilewski and others. Jazz lovers in New Zealand and Australia have already experienced the ancient Sephardic music of Spain through Caroline Manins ‘Mother Tongue’ projects.  Also through Kiwi Jazz harpist Natalia Mann’s Turkish projects.  CJC Feb 5 2014 056 (1)Much of this music derives from the Sufi tradition but Sicilian and Flamenco Jazz fusions should not be overlooked either; both having rich Islamic and Jewish sources feeding them.  The Moors ruled Sicily for 400 years and southern Spain for 500 years.  Under the various Caliphates there was great religious tolerance and a spirit of scientific curiosity.  The arts and musical traditions merged and flourished in that benign space.

Tim Sellars is a drummer/percussionist who graduated from Canterbury University Jazz School with honours.  His studies led him to examine the rhythms and tunes of middle eastern music and he put together ‘Mukhlisa’ to further these explorations.  The Auckland line up features two artists who we are very familiar with, Glen Wagstaff on acoustic guitar and Tamara Smith on flutes.  For leader Tim Sellars, and for bassist Michael Story this was a first visit to the CJC.  Of the tunes chosen many were traditional but the largest number were by a modern writer of Middle Eastern music Joseph Tawadros.  His compositions fuse the traditional with Jazz and allow ample room for improvisation. CJC Feb 5 2014 061Watching Tim Sellars on percussion is eye-opening as he coaxes so many complex rhythms and sounds from his array of percussion instruments, that it beggars belief.  At times he used the Cajon (of African/Peruvian origin) but mostly he played frame drums (middle eastern). I love to hear the frame drum as it is the oldest instrument known to man. The genre includes the Riq (tambourine) which Tim played to perfection.  Being an amplified acoustic ensemble the sound worked well in the club space.  The guitar perhaps needed turning up a touch, to give it more bite. CJC Feb 5 2014 056Tamara was her usual impressive self and her control and mastery of the instrument was evident throughout.  She alternated between bass flute and alto flute; the tonal richness of both horns blending perfectly with the upright bass.  Bass player Michael Story understood the cues and worked with Tamara; resisting any impulse to overplay. Acoustic ensembles like this require discipline and subtlety; overly showy solos can dominate and obscure the filigree of woven sound.  Mukhlisa got that right and the solo work although appealing, was rightly subordinate to the overall integrity of the music. Glen Wagstaff is popular in Auckland and his charts for large ensembles have impressed club goers.  It was good to see him in a different context and many of us  eagerly await his album, which is due out in a month or so.

CJC Feb 5 2014 065 There is ample scope for a larger ensemble to grow out of this; perhaps one including arco Cello and Oud.

I am happy to see this music finding a home in New Zealand as it is a metaphor for a wider truth.  We are living through a troubled era when many western peoples are recoiling from Islamic images.  If they are only aware of conflict images or brutality then perhaps they are looking in the wrong places.  In this music resides harmony peace and humanity.

the composition is Phoenix by Joseph Tawadros.

Who: ‘Mukhlisa’ – Tim Sellars, Glen Wagstaff, Tamara Smith, Michael Story

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 3rd February 2015

Avant-garde, Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs

The Troubles @ CJC 2014

IMG_3891 - Version 2

‘Troubles’ come in many forms and what a proliferation of ‘Troubles’ we have seen in Auckland. In mid 2012 we saw a nonet replete with a sizeable string section (and clarinet). Earlier this year at the Auckland Jazz Festival we saw a septet (strings, no clarinet and with Roger Manins on tenor saxophone as guest artist).  By Wednesday December 10th 2014 all trace of rosin was purged and the sweet sounds and fresh faces of the front line string section replaced by three tall bearded men clutching saxophones (and a shorter clean-shaven trumpeter).  This was a bold and brassy line up; a weightier manifestation, delivering anarchic messages from darker corners.  IMG_3877 - Version 2This was too good an opportunity not to record and Rattle did just that.  Capturing chordal instruments in a space like the CJC is challenging as the sound has a number of hard edges to bounce off.  Recording a live performance of this particular brand of ‘Troubles’ might work well.  IMG_3883 - Version 2Guiding the proceedings with his well-known brand of anti-establishment megaphone diplomacy was ring master John Rae, ‘Troubles’ co-founder.  He shepherded the ensemble through a constantly shifting landscape. His effervescent flow of joyous and often irreverent cries only stemmed by Patrick Bleakley’s timely interjections.  Rae is the supercharged engine room, but Bleakley is clearly the anchor.  Like Rae he’s an original member.  IMG_3872 - Version 2With this Auckland horn section in place, a new front had opened and the tweaked charts took maximum advantage of that. On baritone was Ben McNicoll and his presence gave the sound added bottom. Roger Manins, who had stunned us with his wild death-defying solo’s at the Troubles Portland Public House gig was on tenor again.  Jeff Henderson took the alto spot and that was a significant addition. His ultra powerful unblinking delivery was the x-factor.  Unafraid of repeated motifs but able to negotiate the music without ever resorting to the familiar. That is the Henderson brand, original clear-cut and uncompromising.  In no way diminished by the powerful reed instruments surrounding him was Kingsley Melhuish on trumpet. Melhuish has a rich burnished sound and like the others, he is no stranger to musical risk taking.  IMG_3869 - Version 2Together they evoked a spirit close to the earlier manifestations of the Liberation Jazz Orchestra. Not just the rich and at times delightfully ragged sound, but the cheerful defiance of convention and discarding of political niceties.  Rae’s introductions were gems and I hope some of them survive in the recording.  He told the audience that it had been a difficult year for him. “It was tough experiencing two elections in as many months and in both cases the got it woefully wrong” (referring to the Scottish referendum and the recent New Zealand Parliamentary elections). “there are winners and losers in politics and there are many assholes”.  IMG_3890 - Version 2It wouldn’t be the ‘Troubles’ if there wasn’t a distinct nod to some of the worlds trouble spots or to political events that confound us.  I have chosen a clip ‘Arab Spring Roll’ (John Rae), a title which speaks for itself.  Following the establishment of a compelling ostinato bass line, the musicians build a convincing modal bridge to the freedom which follows.  Chaotic freedom is the perfect metaphor for the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising. The last number performed was the ANC National anthem and as it concluded, fists rose in remembrance of the anti-apartheid struggle.  It is right that we should celebrate the struggles for equality, but sobering to reflect on how far we have to go. The Troubles keep our feet to the flame, while gifting us the best in musical enjoyment.

What: ‘The Troubles‘ – John Rae (drums, compositions, exaltation), Patrick Bleakley (bass, vocal responses), with Roger Manins (tenor sax), Jeff Henderson (alto sax), Ben McNicholl (baritone sax), Kingsley Melhuish (trumpet, Trombone).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland New Zealand, 10th December 2014