Natalie Dietz @ CJC

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We learned in late November that an excellent Australian jazz singer Natalie Dietz would be the featured artist for the last CJC gig of 2013.  She recently recorded with Aaron Parks and Mike Moreno in N.Y.C and the fact that she had connected with these heavyweights of the modern American Jazz Scene told me that we could expect something out of the ordinary.   She had toyed with bringing some Australian Musicians over with her but instead elected to use locals.   Not surprisingly these locals were drawn from among our finest musicians Kevin Field (piano), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Oli Holland (bass) and Adam Tobeck (drums).

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Natalie is the complete package, as she not only has a fabulous voice and an appealing bandstand presentation, but she is a gifted writer.  It is common to see charts laid out for bands, but these were especially well written and complex charts.   Not simple lead sheets.  The standards had been slightly reharmonised or re-interpreted and the original numbers voiced in such a way as to maximise her vocal lines.  These were not numbers belted out, but well crafted tunes which required subtle interplay.

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Natalie’s own compositions were pleasing and especially ‘The Mood I’m in’.   This gorgeous tune is reminiscent of Sara Serpa’s output and this is no accident.  Natalie mentioned a number of influences and Sara Serpa is one of them.  The piece opens with Natalie singing wordless lines in unison with the guitar.   Dixon Nacey’s Godin sings anyhow and the blend was beautiful.   This lovely tune reinforces my bias towards wordless vocalisation in an ensemble.   As much as I enjoy lyrics, adding the human voice as an instrument feels archetypal and so right to my ears.

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There were a number of standards as well and I was initially surprised to see ‘Body and soul’ (Green/Heyman/Sour/ Eyton) in the set list.  This is one of the most recorded songs in history and perennially popular.  It is hard to look at such a well-travelled tune from a new angle but Natalie did just that.  Her take on it was slightly dark and brooding and it sounded tantalisingly fresh.  Among the other standards was Skylark and a few Jobim tunes.  Natalie was well received by the CJC audience and she appeared to appreciate that.

Who: Natalie Dietz (vocals), Kevin Field (piano), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Oli Holland (bass), Adam Tobeck (drums)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland – 11th December 2013

Steve Barry Trio@CJC November 2013

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I have watched the career trajectory of Steve Barry for sometime and with each passing year the acclaim grows.  Just over a year ago he won the prestigious Bell Ward.  More recently he obtained second place in the ‘Australian Jazz artist of the year’ awards at Wangaratta 2013.  After winning a generous grant, enabling him to concentrate on his writing, he took time out for wood-shedding and further study.  He also travelled extensively.  He made use of this time by studying under piano masters like John Taylor.  From the outside his rise has the appearance of an effortless ascendancy, but the success of Steve’s trio arises from dedication and hard work.  His years of intensive study and relentless practice are now paying off.  As a result he plays with a maturity that is rare in younger artists and his unique approach to form is especially evident in his own reworked compositions and the often obscure but well-chosen ballads that he plays.

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There are two equally valid Jazz traditions around forming up combo’s and both can produce in-the-moment music.  At one end of the spectrum are groups formed just prior to a gig.   Hasty truncated rehearsals take place if time allows, but in some cases the musicians do not meet each other until they hit the bandstand.  At the other end are the groups like Jarretts Standards Trio, who are so familiar with each other that communication becomes intuitive.   Both situations have their pitfalls as the overly familiar can produce a certain complacency (Evans was sometimes guilty of this), while the seat of the pants line-ups can result in cues being missed.  Even good musicians fall at these hurdles but not so this trio.  The Steve Barry Trio has been together for over two years and they deliver royally.   The music sounds incredibly fresh each time we hear them and there is no lack of invention.   This is a special group with a unique ability to react to and challenge each other.   They are one of the finest piano trios in Australasia.

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I have heard Steve’s compositions many times, but on Wednesday it all seemed new.  They were the same familiar tunes with their complex time signature and moments of intense ostinato but they had somehow evolved.  Steve Barry is not an artist to rest on his laurels or to recycle old licks.  The most obvious changes occurred with the intro’s, which probed new pathways and took us on compelling journeys until we were again on familiar ground.   His intro’s and outro’s are something I look forward to, as they balance the pulse and swing.

I loved every note but the piece that really stood out was the seldom heard standard ‘More than you know’ (Vincent Youmans -1929).  This was covered by Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday and others.  It is not heard much these days.  This slowly paced intensely beautiful ballad proved a good vehicle for improvisation and in the hands of this trio it was wonderful.  Steve stated the melody upfront and the richness of his voicings took my breath away.  There were subtle asides as the tune progressed, like a fine filigree partly obscuring the form.  Then about five minutes in a gentle swing section.

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You could not wish for better collaborators than Alex Boneham on bass and Tim Firth on drums.   Both are truly exceptional musicians.  There is a rich fatness to Alex Boneham’s tone which is all the more surprising as he was playing an old upright bass from the Auckland University School of Music.  In the hands of a master bassist, even an average instrument sounds rich and full toned.  His feel for time and note placement is perfect; deeply engaged and listening with big ears for every nuance.

Tim Firth also creates a buzz when he is in town and local drummers especially love to hear him.  Few can handle complex time signatures like he does and while he can play high octane tunes with edginess and fire, he can also execute brush work perfectly.   His brush work on ‘More than you know’ was understated (as it should be on a ballad) but as the tune progressed you were in no doubt about the value of his contribution.

This was one of those nights that gives Jazz a good name.

Who: The Steve Barry Trio – Steve Barry (leader and piano), Alex Boneham (upright bass), Tim Firth (drums)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland on the 27th November 2013

Emerging Artists Matt Bray & Crystal Choi

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It’s an institution that the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) dedicates a handful of gig nights to emerging-artists.  This is often the musicians first public performance.  Performing in a club is a step up for any emerging artist, as audience expectations must be confronted.  In a Jazz club they’re expected to entertain; communicate something special.  It is not an exercise in ticking the ‘must demonstrate chops’ box.  Audiences have to like what you’re doing, rather than thinking how clever.

The sets attracted good crowds and that is important.  Supporting this music starts by supporting its emerging artists.

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The first set up was Matt Bray’s, who varied his pieces to reflect his many influences.   There were standards, original compositions and even a ‘Radiohead’ number.  Matt plays guitar and he has been keen explore the tonal and voicing possibilities of that instrument.  We saw him on the bandstand only the week before, as he plays in the AJO (Auckland Jazz Orchestra).  With the AJO he had tackled complex Cuban melodies and rhythms.  On this gig he was free to explore a wider vista; looking to modern guitarists like Kurt Rosenwinkel whose influence was evident.  He had chosen his band mates well and especially with the experienced and multi faceted drummer Cameron Sangster.  Cameron is the resident drummer with the AJO, but he is also featured to advantage in several well-known local bands.

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Conner McAneny was on piano (+keys) and he’s already performed several gigs at the CJC.  He’s a reliable performer and well able to keep out-of-the-way of the guitar, while shining in solo spots.   The last band member was Eamon Edmundson-Wells who recently graduated from the Auckland University Jazz School.   He was in both sets and is unfailingly impressive.   At the rate he is going he will soon be chasing Cameron McArthur and the fact that he is stepping into the gig slots normally taken up by Cameron (who is playing in the Chicago Musical pit band) tells its own story.

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The second set was Crystal Choi’s and it puzzled me that I had not met her until recently.   Crystal is a very fine pianist and she oozed confidence and style (she started her studies as a classical pianist but wanted more freedom to explore music).   She has emerged from the Auckland University Jazz school as a well formed and supremely confident pianist and to hear her perform it was hard to get my head around the fact that it was her first club performance.  I tracked her down later and put a few questions to her.   What year was she? (A third year graduate); had she performed with this trio/quintet outside of the Jazz School? (No).  She said that she had not felt ready before, but now she did.   Well she certainly showed us ‘ready’ that night.   The audience went wild after her set and kept yelling for an encore.  A superb first outing by any measure.

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The first number up was Bud Powell’s ‘Un Poco Loco’ and she skilfully moulded it to to her purpose.  This was a burner with plenty of flash, but a lot of soul besides.  I wondered if her handling of a ballad would be as assured, because ballads can reveal weaknesses quicker than any fast paced number.  I soon found out that ballads were no obstacle either and in addition her own compositions took interesting directions.   Her quintet was Peter Ruddell (tenor saxophone), Michael Howell (guitar), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (bass) and Tristan Deck (drums).

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The charts were textured and interesting; often augmented by Crystal singing unison lines.  I have chosen a clip of Crystals rendering of the standard, ‘In Your Own Sweet Way’ (Dave Brubeck).   I was impressed by this as it was slightly reharmonised and the implied notes spoke as clearly as the notes played.  When a musician knows what to leave out and what not to, they are well on the way.

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Michael Howell certainly caught my attention, as his clean soaring lines told me that he was a modernist but with a good sense of history.   Tristan Deck I have heard before and so I was not surprised to see how seamlessly he handled the changes in mood and texture.  A good drummer to have on board.   The remaining band member was Peter Ruddell on Tenor saxophone.   He only played briefly but he had a lovely tone and his lines were clean and imaginative.  This band played well together.   They we’re tight, but they never once strangled the music.

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I look forward to hearing Matt Bray and Crystal Choi as they develop further.

What & Where: Emerging Artists gig @ CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 1885 Britomart, Auckland 13th November 2013

Who first set: Matt Bray (leader, guitar), Connor McAneny (piano, keys), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (bass), Cameron Sangster (drums)

Who second set: Crystal Choi (leader, piano), Peter Ruddell (tenor saxophone), Michael Howell (guitar), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (bass), Tristan deck (drums).

No Square @ CJC

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Auckland’s CJC (Creative Jazz Club) hosted two European Jazz Acts in as many months.  The most recent band ‘No Square’, is from Switzerland.  This is a top rated European unit who have been together since 1994 and their tightness, focus and intuitive interactions reflected that.  Having played many European festivals to acclaim, they ventured further afield, assisted by the Francophile cultural organisation the Alliance Francaise.  Michel Benebig is another artist often supported by this worthy organisation.

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The journey down from Europe is particularly gruelling and even with New Zealand gigs tagged onto an Australian tour it requires a big commitment from the musicians.   I am not sure whether New Zealand audiences always grasp that.   After hearing about how poorly attended the Wellington ‘No Square’ gig was I cringed in embarrassment.   This is a truly amazing band and they deserved the respect of an attentive and decent sized audience.  Thankfully the audience at the CJC was reasonable, (but it could have been better).  If we don’t support visitors then why should they support our musicians who travel?   It is too easy to blame the lack of promotion, as our web-based and word of mouth networks are generally sufficient to pack out gigs.   All that’s required is a commitment to get off the damn couch.   Roger Manins goes to great effort to organise offshore acts and the audiences must respond in kind.  If we love this music we should pay it the respect of attendance.

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Europe has been deeply involved in the Jazz world since the early 1900’s and it was so popular that Hitler banned it as depraved.   There could be no higher recommendation.  Euro Jazz is not a slavish imitation of American Jazz, as each region has developed distinct flavours of their own.   This is particularly pronounced in the Mediterranean region and with the ebb and flow of migration the process has accelerated.  France was arguably the original centre of Euro Jazz but her near neighbours Switzerland, Spain, Germany, Belgium, UK and Italy have all contributed significantly to the development of the music.  This band originates from French-speaking Switzerland, with their most recent album recorded in beautiful Lausanne on Lac Lemon.    While they referenced Coltrane it was also evident that middle eastern rhythms and themes informed their work as well.   This well-travelled band is extremely tight as a unit.  Whatever twists and turns the music took they intuitively coalesced around each new theme.   No charts needed here.

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The first few numbers were denser and more complex than what followed, but as the evening progressed an airy feel and a deeper groove established.   I could discern many European and American influences from Debussy to Coltrane.  This distinctive original music was Euro Jazz at its best.  Andre Hahne (bass) took care of the introductions  (presumably because he has more English than the others), but the band is billed as a collective of equals.   It would be impossible to single out any particular musician as they all shone in one way or another.   On saxophones was Matthieu Durmarque, piano Matthieu Roffe and drums Alexandre Ambroziak.

This was not a night to miss.

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 1885 Britomart, Auckland

Who: ‘No Square‘ – Andre Hahne (bass), Matthieu Durmarque (saxophones), Matthieu Roffe (piani), Alexandre Ambroziak (drums)

What: Their 8th Album ‘The Laws of ephemerae’ (Les Lois de L Ephemere)

Gai Bryant’s Cubanos w/ AJO

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We get a lot of interesting overseas acts passing through these days but seldom do we see Cuban musicians.  This is not about what they have to offer or even about the tyranny of distance, but more about politics.  When this band was booked it was a bigger lineup, but getting short-term visas to enter Australia and New Zealand proved an insurmountable  barrier for some of their number.  In my view this is an arcane and ludicrous legacy of the cold war.   In spite of an easing of sanctions by the EU and others, those old suspicions remain.   These talented musicians are the very best of ambassadors for their country and their indigenous music.  Its time to get real Australasian immigration.  The few that were allowed into the country gave us a great nights entertainment and not one sought asylum from John Key.

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The tour was organised by Australian band leader Gai Bryant and she arrived here with barely enough time to hold a few brief rehearsals with the AJO (Auckland Jazz Orchestra).  I am a fan of the AJO as they always tackle interesting projects.   They are a Jazz Orchestra with great dynamics and under the direction of Tim Atkinson, Mike booth and others they continue to produce the goods.   The personnel had changed a bit since I last saw them and especially the front horn line.  Even though it was dark and crowded I could make out a number of the long-term AJO regulars such Jo Spiers, Callum Passells, Cameron Sangster, Mike Booth, Jono Tan, Cameron McArthur and Matt Steele.   This band is scandalously under utilised and the city fathers and corporates should be engaging them for important occasions.

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I am picking that this music would have been testing for them, as very few Auckland musicians have had a chance to work in authentic Cuban styles before.  It is one thing to play a Rumba or Bolero in a looser jazz idiom but quite another to follow charts like these.   At the heart of Cuban music is a set of complex mesmerising counter rhythms and the clave.  This is a delicious fusion music and the most influential of all of the ‘world musics’.   It reaches deep into the shameful slave past of Cuba.  West African musicians had retained knowledge of the ancient percussion instruments, chants and melodies which had travelled with them.  Along the way a plethora of other influences enriched and extended their music.  There is a strong Spanish influence and a French influence among others.  These influences were absorbed into the polyrhythmic music of West Africa.  At the very heart is often the clave rhythms and central to that is the five beat pattern so much emulated in popular music and Jazz.  These days the forms are codified and so jumping into this as a novice is a big ask.  I don’t know enough about Cuban music to judge this performance against others, but suffice to say I enjoyed it immensely.

I was deeply impressed by the percussionists but also by Cameron Sangster (drums), who took his cues so well from the Cubans.  Other notable moments were delivered by Callum Passells (alto), Cameron McArthur (bass) and Matt Steele (piano).

With the percussion instruments playing and the orchestra and soloists weaving around the beat it was easy to see how those old stories of voodoo and trance music took hold.  These beats defied all attempts to rationalise the sound.  The rhythms entered every pore, almost like body blows, driving me out of self and into the arms of some universal force.  An ancient joyful celestial dance from which there was mercifully no escape.

Who: Gai Bryant’s Cubanos (the photos on this gig were all taken by Ben McNicoll)

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 1885 Britomart, Auckland, Wednesday 30th October 2013

NOiCE @ CJC

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The North Island Creative Ensemble is a project dear to Rosie Langabeer’s heart and one of many projects that she has on the go.   Rosie has been out of New Zealand for some time although NOiCE did perform at the CJC over a year ago.  Her musical journey most recently took her to the USA where she worked for three years with leading experimental improvisers and artists.   Her compositions and playing have won various awards and so I made certain that I there as I missed the last NOiSE gig.

This is music that is hard to pin down, as it deliberately defies conventions while somehow flirting with them.   There is a sense of structure which provides a touch stone, but don’t grasp too firmly as the forms will dissolve as quickly as they appeared.  This is music which carries you forward if you let it, holding you in the eternal moment.

NOiCE is an assembly of highly creative musicians; coming from a variety of North Island towns and cities.  The music is experimental in nature and it is definitely adventurous.  Most of these musicians are well-known and leaders in the field of New Zealand experimental music.   Jim Langabeer (Rosie’s father) is a stalwart of the Auckland Jazz scene, but he has also worked with international musicians like Gary Peacock, Sammy Davis Jr and even the Bee Gees.   He is a multi reeds and winds player and because of his proficiency on a variety of instruments he has been in demand over the years.  I recently saw his name come up in the music credits of the New Zealand film ‘Mr Pip’.   His innovative flute work is probably what he best known for.

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Jeff Henderson is also a multi reeds player and he is at the very heart of Auckland’s experimental music scene.   He can often be seen at ‘Vitamin S’, a small club dedicated to experimental music located just off Karangahape Road, Auckland.   Jeff has worked with a large number of cutting edge musicians over the years, William Parker, Steve Lacey, Mike Nock and many others.   He delights in pushing against the boundaries and when he performs he seldom holds back.  While his scalding solos often reach beyond mere form, his ability to integrate seamlessly into an ensemble creates a filigree of contrasts and textures.   A delicious aura of inventive unpredictability hangs over him.  IMG_8613 - Version 2

Chris O’Connor (drums) is a firm favourite with CJC audiences.  A recipient of the Chapman Tripp Award for original music, he has also worked with the soprano saxophonist Steve Lacey, avant-garde pianist Marilyn Cryspel, Don McGlashan and numerous other well-known groups or individuals.   Chris is one of those drummers that other drummers revere and the last time we saw him at the CJC was with vibist John Bell.

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Ben McNicoll (reeds and winds), Joe Callwood (guitar), Gerard Crewdson (brass) and Kingsley Melhuish (brass), Nicky Wuts (vibes) and Patrick Bleakley (bass) round out the ensemble.   They are all experienced musicians and most of them have worked with NOiCE for some time.  Ben McNicolls is the best known to CJC audiences as both the technical director of the club and a frequent performer.  A good reader with a nice sound he, is happy to take on any project, from standards gigs to out-ensembles.   Gerard Crewdson and Kingsley Melhuish are versatile and sought after brass players and both have played the CJC before.   The musicians that I was less familiar with were Patrick Bleakley (bass), Joe Callwood (guitar) and Nikky Wuts (Vibraphone).

I’m relieved to see another mallets player on the scene as New Zealand has very few of them.   John Bells departure earlier in the year left a yawning chasm.

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All contributed something unique as this is a truly democratic ensemble.  One where individual voices rise and then subside; emerging seamlessly into the collective consciousness of the group

 

Alan Brown trio + 1@ CJC Oct 2013

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Alan Brown is such a gifted musician that we always expect something special from his club gigs.   The October gig not only lived up to expectations but found something extra to offer us.  Alan is always on safe ground with Dixon Nacey on guitar and Josh Sorenson on drums, as these musicians don’t need any warm up.  They have played together so often that their understanding of what is required is intuitive.  Deep energised mesmerising grooves are quickly established and maintained.  As we progressed through the first number, the warm grooves took us somewhere else.  Transported on mass to a place where winter became a distant memory.

 A state of grace, suspended somewhere between reality and a multi hued dream state.  This is a place where the familiar is transformed into the extraordinary and we felt incredibly happy about that.

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As I watched the interplay between these three I could not help wondering how that felt.  How it felt making that music, in that way and with that much soul.  The looks on their faces gave me the answer.  They also knew that this was one out of the bag and that some special chemistry was happening.   The Alan Brown trio were on fire and we were not just witnesses but integral to the performance.  There was a shared collective energy and we were each and every one of us connected in a web of pure creation.

I have written a lot about Alan over the last two years and he deserves every accolade thrown his way.   If this sounds like hyperbole I will quickly argue otherwise.  He consistently delivers performances and compositions that grab the attention and on nights like this he finds something extra.  The audiences from the High Street days have never forgotten ‘Blue Train’ and the fact that Alan keeps the crowds coming; still creating new audiences, speaks volumes.   This is not about reliving the glory days, but about bringing fresh and exciting perspectives to an ever unfolding musical output.

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Dixon Nacey is another musician who always pleases.   When ever I see that beautiful Godin guitar I know that something extraordinary could happen and this was just such a night.  Dixon is a musician who can communicate as much by his body language as by his soaring inventive solos.  You know how deeply he observes and engages because the evidence is in his face and at his fingertips.  When exchanges are being traded with drummer or keyboards, his expressions mirror the intensity.   When the solo or the interplay really works well, a huge smile lights up the bandstand.   That smile and those magical voicings tell us so much about the man and his music.

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The remaining trio member is Josh Sorenson and I have heard him on two or three previous occasions.  Josh has specialised in groove drumming and he is exceptionally good at it.  This is a specialist skill as there are a million deceptive subtleties built into it when done well.   I spoke to Josh at some length about this and what he told me was illuminating.  It is very hard work and although it sometimes appears straightforward it is not.  I gathered the impression that a night of holding such tight grooves together is more exhausting than bebop or rock drumming.  The concentration required to move around the kit while holding a tight multi faceted beat together is tremendous.  It is not just the concentration required, but the ability to sink into a beat in an almost trance like fashion.

Towards the end of the final number Josh launched into a drum solo and what unfolded was almost supernatural.  As he moved all over the kit, the deep-groove pulse never wavered by a fraction.  I have never seen this done before and I found it incredibly impressive.   That solo and in fact the whole number ‘Inciteful’ (had the audience on their feet, whooping and shouting with enthusiasm).  Sadly I had run out of video tape by then, but I did capture some of the magic.  IMG_8550 - Version 2

Part way through the gig we had another treat in store when the soulful Jazz Singer Chris Melville came to the band stand.  I like male Jazz singers and I worry that their numbers are so few.  Chris has a terrific voice and he tackled the old Juan Tizol standard  ‘Caravan’ in a mature and engaging way.   I enjoy listening to his interpretations and to the timbre of his voice, but noticed that it had a tendency to become a little lost in the acoustics of the room.  Some small adjustments to the sound levels would remedy that.   As the extraordinary Mark Murphy steps back and the fabulous velvety baritone Andy Bey performs less, there are other male singers coming forward like Jose James, Kurt Elling and Gregory Porter.  It is a tradition worth keeping and I  hope that we see continue to see singers like Chris keeping the faith.

We heard old favourites like ‘Shades of Blue’, some new material and even a rock classic from Led Zeppelin ‘No Quarter’.   ‘Charlie’s Here’ cast a warm bluesy aura over the room and I have put that up as a video link.   The kicker however was definitely ‘Inciteful’.  It was an amazing rendition packed with high-octane solos, clever ideas and groove so deep that even speleologists could never hope to explore it.

The organ was a Hammond SK2 which is not Alan’s usual keyboard.   Coupled to a Leslie Unit and the resulting sound was perfect.   This lighter modern offshoot of the C3/B3 certainly earned its stripes on this night.  It was just right for the room.

Who: Alan Brown (SK2 Hammond organ), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Josh Sorenson (drums).

Where: The (CJC) Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885 building, Auckland 16th October 2013

Mark Isaacs @ CJC

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Pianist and composer Mark Isaacs has a rapidly growing international reputation and we were lucky to get him here.  Once again it was down to Roger Manins, who has wide connections in the Jazz world and we are eternally grateful for it.  Mark Isaacs has toured the world extensively and not only fronted a number of prestigious Jazz festivals, but also recorded with many world-renowned Jazz musicians.  Artists like Kenny Wheeler, Roy Haines, Adam Nussbaum and Dave Holland have appeared on his albums but as if that were not enough, he has two parallel musical careers.   Mark is also a classical pianist/composer of some stature and the conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy said this of his extraordinarily beautiful ‘Children’s Songs’.  “This wonderful cycle is highly inventive and inspiring, accessible to children and adults alike.  Very enjoyable and touching“.

The first thing to strike you about Mark is his intense passion for music, but his focus and drive have not in any way deterred him from exhibiting a cheerful, often extroverted demeanour.  He engaged easily with the CJC audience and his level of report with the band and especially Roger, made the gig all the more enjoyable.  Even though he had not played with drummer Frank Gibson Jr or Bass player Cameron McArthur before it felt like an established band.  He and Saxophonist Roger Manins go back a long way and perhaps because of this long-standing connection, what was billed as a standards gig, soon became so much more.  IMG_8456 - Version 2 (1)

The set kicked off with ‘Gone With the Wind’ (Allie Wrubel – 1937).  By coincidence this once popular but seldom heard tune was performed here by Mike Nock only months earlier.   Both artists appeared to briefly reference the brilliant but somewhat obscure Brubeck version, but each approached the tune in very different ways.  Mark Isaacs is another musician who has the history Jazz piano under his finger tips and as he worked his way into the tune I could hear brief echoes of the past greats.  I love this tune and especially when interpreted this well.

As the set list unfolded I realised that most of the standards were from the 1930’s.   It is not hard to fathom why, as the Great American Songbook tunes written in this period were second to none.  The gig,  subtitled as ‘Pennies From Heaven’, was later explained as being an inside joke.  Roger and Mark had embarked upon just such a project a decade ago and in their view the title scared off the potential audience.  More fool those who failed to turn up because this number in their hands was fresh, funny and satisfying.  ‘Pennies from Heaven’ (Johnny Burke/Arthur Johnston) is also from the 1930’s.

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The tune that I have posted is the perennial favourite ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ (Frank Churchill – 1937).  Although non Jazz audiences would only associate this tune with Disney, it has a long and distinguished Jazz history.  Among the 100’s of well-loved versions are those by Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and Grant Green.  Playing a classic standard like this to a savvy Jazz audience can have its pitfalls as comparisons are inevitable.  The audience however lapped it up and from the stating of the melody through to the open-ended interpretation near the end, it was fabulous.  With Roger egging the band on and Mark responding in kind it could hardly be otherwise.

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There was a very nice solo by Cameron McArthur who astonishingly just keeps improving between gigs.  Frank Gibson Jr met Mark years ago but in spite of them trying to organise a gig it never happened until now.  In the event it was a happy confluence of inventiveness, exuberance and great musicianship.  Roger Manins was on form as usual, delivering fiery energised solos in a post Coltrane manner.

Mark Isaacs has the technique and the hunger to continually reach beyond.   Whether gently comping under a melodic bass solo or unwinding the melody to explore what lies beneath he engages us.  His probing left hand often pulls slightly back on what his right hand is playing and the tension created gives added impetus.  While his Classical compositions are informed by Jazz, the opposite is also true.  He will surely continue to do well in both worlds.

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As I left the club I picked up a copy of his Resurgence band’s ‘Duende’ album and put it on during the drive home.  It is an album of his own compositions.  What was immediately apparent was how well crafted the compositions were.  It was the sort of album that ECM might have released and the quality of the recording added to that impression.  As I listened on I heard some beautiful guitar work, not over stated but clean, inventive and crystalline.  Then I heard a human voice, wordlessly singing arranged lines as part the ensemble.  Easing over to the curb I picked up the album cover and flipped it over.

The personnel list would stop anyone in their tracks.  Mark Isaacs (piano), James Muller (guitars), Matt Keegan (reeds and percussion), Brett Hirst (bass), Tim Firth (drums), Briana Cowlishaw (vocal).  Matching this dream line up with those compositions was a masterstroke.   Muller and Isaacs communicate so very well.  It all made sense, the Kenny Wheeler connection, the skilled arranging and the promise of what may follow.   Mark Isaacs has the ears to absorb and the smarts to compose what works best for him.  This album certainly does.

Who: Mark Isaacs (piano, compositions, leader), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Frank Gibson Jr (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart, 1885 Basement, Auckland, New Zealand on 2nd October 2013.

Album and contact details: ‘Duende’ (Gracemusic GROO4)

Glen Wagstaff Project @ CJC

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Just when I think that I am getting a handle on the extent of the New Zealand Jazz scene something new comes along that tells me I don’t.  I humbly admit that I am only just beginning to comprehend it.  As the CJC attracts more offshore Jazz visitors it is also attracting more Wellington and Christchurch bands and those have been great.   If this trend continues I half expect to see the Gore chapter of the ‘Balclutha John Zorn Tribute Band’ on the billing sometime soon.

A particular case in point is the Christchurch Jazz scene which is producing some astonishing Jazz musicians.   A slow but steady stream of these musicians has been drifting northward (Andy Keegan, Dan Kennedy & Richie Pickard to name but a few).  In the last few years we have had the Tamara Smith trio and Reuben Derrick’s quartet (both of which gave an excellent account of themselves) and now the Glen Wagstaff Project.  Roger is never wrong about this stuff and he told us that we were in for a treat.  IMG_8416 - Version 2

Jazz is a broad deep river and the tributaries running into it are now so numerous that it is easy to overlook one.  I have long been urging the better writers among our Auckland musicians to do more ensemble writing (or even better write a some charts for a nonet).  They have patiently explained that this is a big task and one which requires a commitment of time.  I have continued to engage these musicians on the likes of Kenny Wheeler and almost everyone loves what he does.   As much as he’s admired, his compositions or similar work is seldom performed.  Following the progress of such outlier writing is confined to selective offshore artists.

When the Glen Wagstaff project flew in last week all I knew about them was that Glen is great writer and that Roger Manins was enthusiastic.  Three of the band were familiar to me as they have played at the CJC before.  I sat back expecting a quick few bars as they ran through an arranged head and then numerous solos to follow.  What I got was a rich gorgeous feast of ensemble playing.  I couldn’t have been more delighted.  These charts are crafted with consummate skill and like any well-arranged medium to large ensemble charts they imparted a sense of space and breadth.   To get the feel of a bigger unit while retaining the airiness and space of a small one is what such writing is all about.   The effect of well written charts like these is profound.   The choice of instrumentation is also important as it allows for very particular textures and voicings.   These charts were well written and well played.   I was there from the first number and remained captivated throughout.  IMG_8377 - Version 2

Most of the numbers were original but several were re-arranged from the likes ‘The Brian Blade Foundation’ and ‘Kenny Wheeler’.   A version of “Kind Folk’ from the amazing Kenny Wheeler ECM disk ‘Angel Song’ was breath-taking.   The Wheeler disk had a pared back lineup (Kenny Wheeler, Lee Konitz, Dave Holland & Bill Frisell) but in Glens hands this expanded for an octet.  The gig was divided between septet and octet and this allowed the various band members to take short solos’.   On guitar was Glen and he resisted the urge to perform long soaring virtuosic lines as they would have been out of place.   That said his guitar work was just great and the little hints of Abercrombie or even Rosenwinkel stylings gave us a glimpse of his prowess as a player.  Tamara Smith has been to the CJC before and along with Auckland’s Trudy Lile she owns the flute space.  Tamara is a gifted musician who can utilise extended technique or just floor you with her breathy soulful notes.   Having both flute and voice in the mix worked well for me and the fact that they were able to blend while never appearing to crowd the others space, tells me a lot about their abilities and the charts.  IMG_8390 - Version 2

On tenor sax was Gwyn Renolds (who also doubled on soprano) and on alto was George Cook.  Both played superbly and both had solo spots which were enthusiastically received by the audience.  Once again these guys showed how well they could modulate their sound and fit tightly into the mix.  Ensemble playing of this sort requires an unusually disciplined approach and the naturally louder horns resisted the impulse to dominate where that would have been inappropriate.    On piano was Catherine Wells and while she had few solos, she added just the right touch to the ensemble.   A minimalist approach was called for and that was delivered.   This sort of band is about texture and her occasional mid to upper register filigree added value.

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Andy Keegan and Richie Pickard are increasingly seen about town and they are well appreciated by CJC audiences.   They are both skilled readers and able to deliver deeply nuanced performances or knock out punches as the job in hand requires.  They have often featured in louder, frenetic bands but have also shown how tastefully they can play when presented with charts like this.   I have high regard for both as musicians.

Lastly there was Toni Randle who sang wordless lines and approached the charts much as a non chordal instrument would.  Adding the human voice into charts like these is to impart a degree of magic when done well.   It takes writing skills and well honed performance skills to pull this off.  One again this worked incredibly well.   I have long been a fan of Norma Winstone and Toni followed very much in her footsteps.  The human voice is a powerful instrument and to hear it freed from the job of interpreting lyrics is a joy.  The tune ‘Maylie’ that I have put up, is one of Glens and it illustrates that point perfectly.

During the dying years of the big band swing era the Claude Thornhill Orchestra and a few others were doing things differently.  Musicians like Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan came up through these bands and then came the seminal ‘Birth of the Cool’ and Gil Evans.   This sort of writing has never gone away but it is certainly on the periphery.   I’m thrilled that Glen Wagstaff is writing in this way and I hope that he continues to do so.   His band and his charts have real integrity and the club crowd reacted to that.  I left the gig deeply satisfied and that’s what this music is all about.

Who: The Glen Wagstaff Project – Glen Wagstaff (leader, guitar, compositions), Tamara Smith (flute), George Cook (alto), Gwyn Renolds (tenor, soprano), Toni Randle (vocals), Catherine Wells (piano), Richie Pickard (bass), Andy Keegan (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), basement 1885 building, Brittomart Auckland

Mike Nock’s Australian Trio @ CJC 2013

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A lot’s been written about Mike Nock and he is well recorded.   In spite of this there is so much more to say and the unfolding story has come to define Australasian Jazz.  It would be accurate to describe him as one of the greatest musicians New Zealand has produced, but Mike Nock deserves evaluation on a much wider stage than Oceania.  As lucky as we feel owning him, he is a citizen of the world, highly ranked among the best that global Jazz has to offer.  IMG_8361 - Version 2

This was summed up by one of the audience; an American who has been following the international Jazz Scene for many years.  He shook his head in amazement and said “That was the best performance I have heard in ages”.  He asked about Mike’s history and I gave him a potted version.   “Oh yeah” he said.  “Well all of those years in America have given him that deep blues feel that only top players realise”.

I caught up with Mike before the gig and he was his usual friendly self.   Over dinner there were jokes and numerous war stories.  Because I have attended too many loud gigs my hearing is not quite as good as it was.  At one point the drummer James Waples said something to me which I missed entirely.  I apologised, explaining that my eyesight and hearing were failing me.   Mike leapt on the comment as quick as lightning, saying, “Man don’t worry.  That’s exactly what we like in a critic”.

There was the briefest of discussions between the band members about the set list, which ended in Mike saying, “We’ll figure it out as we go and you’ll know when you hear me start to play”.  While this is not unusual among Jazz musicians, it was evident that Mike would be digging into some obscure and unrehearsed standards during the evening.

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The spirit of Bernie McGann hung over us as he had passed the previous evening.  Mike spoke movingly of him and then he played one of Bernie’s compositions followed by ‘Bernie’s Tune’ (Bernie Miller) and the lovely old standard ‘No Moon at All’ (David Mann).  ‘No Moon at all’ is hardly ever played these days but it was once very popular.  It was famously recorded by Julie London, Nat Cole, Mel Torme and Anita O’Day.  There are more recent versions by Karrin Alyson and Brad Mehldau.  In Mike Nock’s hands this jaunty mid-tempo classic took on a deep bluesy feel and as it unfolded he achieved something that only the Jazz greats can manage.

The tune turned into something else; it was somehow transformed into ‘every tune’.  From the first few bars everyone smiled and many whispered in the dark, “Oh I must know this but I can’t recall the name”.  Like many probing improvisers Mike hummed and sang as he played.  As the piece unfolded something extraordinary happened.  People started quietly humming along with the trio; a deep connection  was made and it was primal.  I’m certain that many in the audience had never heard the tune before, but they thought that they had.   Keith Jarrett has often invoked this state of grace, finding a hidden place deep within the music.  So has Mike Nock.  Several musicians later commented that he had moved in and out of the song form and that the bluesy overlay had been utterly effective.  Another delightful old tune that the trio played was ‘Sweet Pumpkin’ (Ronnell Bright).

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On Drums was James Waples and he certainly lives up to his reputation.   He has featured on several of Mike’s albums and goes back a long way with Mike.   There is a subtlety to his drumming that is hard to put into words.  He is a powerful presence whether executing the softest brushwork or a driving upbeat tempo.  He has a great ear and knows when to push the others or hold back.  He is perfect for a multi faceted piano trio like this and I would go out of my way to hear him again.

Many Kiwi’s have forgotten (and many Australians will deliberately overlook the fact), but Brett Hirst is an expat New Zealander.   He is highly regarded on the Australian scene and like James he has had a long association with Mike.  When these three are in lockstep it is extraordinary.  Like the others Brett is a deep listener and clearly at ease in this open-ended format.  At one point in the program Mike stopped and said, “What shall we play now, something unexpected?”.   Then he added, “Oh I know, I will try this”.   Brett asked hopefully, “Can we know?”  The number had started before an answer could be given and he was immediately there.  Brett was up to handling any curve balls thrown and clearly relished them.

During the second set the trio were ready to take things further out and we sensed that they were in a zone where the communication is telepathic.  It is during these explorations that we see another side of their music.  Every interplay however subtle conveys layers of meaning and the spaces between the notes communicates a profundity.   This is art-music at its very best but for all that it is never far from its blues roots.   I have listened to Jazz across the globe and you would never, never hear better than this.

Who: Mike Nock (piano), Brett Hirst (bass), James Waples (drums).  www.mikenock.com

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Brittomart basement 1885 building, Auckland, New Zealand.

When: 18th September 2013

Emerging Artists Series: Alex Ward / Allana Goldsmith

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Two or three times a year the CJC reserves a gig night for emerging artists. On Wednesday there was a double billing and while they could legitimately be termed emerging artists, they showed a confidence and polish that bespoke experience. In fact both have been performing about town and in Allana’s case for some time. This was a moment to show a discriminating Jazz audience what they are about and they delivered.

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First up was pianist Alex Ward. He has recently graduated with honours from the NZSM Massy campus. I last saw Alex play just over a year ago and he showed real promise then. Now the hard work and years of study are bearing fruit. He appears to play with even greater confidence and this obvious self belief has influenced his performance. His set was mainly a showcase for his own compositions and they were interesting and varied. There were ballads, uptempo burners and a (new) standard on offer. Standards always give us points of comparison and his rendering of Robert Glasper’s ‘Yes I’m Country (and that’s Ok)’ from the Blue Note, Double Booked album did just that. It was flawlessly executed and delivered with real heartfelt exuberance. Among his own compositions I really liked ‘Litmus Test’ for its edgy hard bop feel and the more reflective ‘Lighthouse Keeper’ (a recently written tune). There was also a reharmonisation of ‘Beautiful Love’ but with dark voicings and with an oblique approach to the melodic structure. These tunes while all quite different, hung together well as a set.

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On Bass he had the gifted Cameron McArthur and on drums Ivan Lukitina (who I had heard about but not seen before now). They both provided solid support for Alex and delivered good performances during solos. Cameron was particularly energised during ‘Litmus Test’ and Ivan was right there with him. Ivan excelled on ‘Yes I’m Country (and thats OK)”.

This should be a right of passage for Alex and he will surely become a fixture about town if he continues performing at this level.

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Allana Goldsmith has appeared in a number of bands and her musicality and stage presence are pleasing to ear and eye. I have heard Allana a number of times now and on those occasions her role as ‘part of a lineup’ gave me a brief taste of what could be. She has performed with various sized bands but most often as part of a duo with guitarist.

She is a current member of the ‘Sisters of Swing’, which is an Andrews Sisters tribute band and co-member Trudy Lile speaks highly of her abilities. I recently saw her with Peter Scotts ‘Bad Like Jazz’ project and I was very impressed; especially as she sang a stunning rendition of ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’ (Eddie Harris). It is this preparedness to take on challenging projects and to do them well that sticks with you. Her voice is strong without being loud and in many ways she is reminiscent of the great singers of the past. What is not redolent of past singers however, is her preparedness to tackle adventurous modern projects. IMG_8310

For this gig Allana had selected a few well-known and some lessor performed standards and to stamp her own mark on them, sung often in Te Reo Maori. While Whirimako Black has already moved into this territory, Allana has her own unique approach to the music. Hers is an original voice. It is tempting to think of songs sung in Te Reo Maori as being different or apart from European traditions. In Allana’s case that is not so as she has maintained the integrity of both traditions. The best illustration of this was her brilliant rendition of the Miles Davis tune, ‘In a Silent Way’. This was the first tune of her set and she used it as a Karakia or blessing. The notion of using this open, spiritual number to unify us all and to call down blessings was a perfect beginning.

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Her band was Ben McNicholl (tenor sax), Dave Fisher (guitar), Cameron McArthur (bass), Jason Orme (drums).

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I have always rated Ben highly on ballad material. His concise soloing and the atmospheric vibe that he created behind Allana worked well. When backing a singer on a ballad, tasteful minimalism trumps busy, every time. This sort of restraint is counter intuitive to a musician, but the balance between Ben and Allana was pitched just right. I know that he took care to select just the right reed for the job in hand.

I thought that I knew all of the Jazz guitarists about town, but clearly I don’t. Dave Fisher has played with Allana for some time and he picks up on her every nuance. The voicings that he uses are those of the skilled accompanist and the warmth of his tone caresses and underpins her vocals perfectly. This was mostly chordal work, which shifted, swung and shimmered like the guitarists of an earlier era. It was an effect deliberately aimed for and it was easy on the ear. His guitar is an Epiphone Hollowbody of the sort used by Joe Pass and that made sense as well.

Cameron McArthur was also the bass player on this second set. Because he works so often about town he has developed a keen ear and had no trouble fitting into this different groove. Unlike the earlier piano trio gig, with challenges thrown down and returned in kind, he needed to keep more out-of-the-way here. Seeing him perform so well in such a variety of situations certainly increases my respect for him.

The remaining band member was drummer Jason Orme and I am very familiar with his playing. Oddly though, I had never seen him playing in this sort of situation, which at times required a very nuanced approach. His skills in such a setting were immediately apparent and his brush work was especially fine. Like the guitarist and the tenor he focused on the singer, enhancing every inflection of voice or following every whispered line. Each accent delivered with a quiet flurry on the snare or a tap on a muted cymbal.

Allana is currently studying performance at the NZSM Massey and this was her first CJC gig. She will certainly be back.

* Thanks to Dennis Thorpe for the high quality video material

Wh0 (first set): Alex Ward (piano), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ivan Lukitina (drums).

Who (second set): Allana Goldsmith (vocals), Ben McNicholl (tenor sax), Dave Fisher (guitar), Cameron McArthur (bass), Jason Orme (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Brittomart Building, basement, Auckland

When: 11th September 2013

Michel Benebig ‘Yellow Purple’ review

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When Michel Benebig played at the CJC late last year I learned about his coming tour of the West Coast of America.  Because I was going to San Francisco over January I arranged to meet him there, as I knew that he and Shem would have a new band on the road.   We kept in touch over the weeks that followed and he was getting a very good reception as he toured around.  It confirmed what I was reading; that B3 (with drums and guitar) bands are genuinely popular again.  This regained popularity is great news for Jazz audiences as the B3 line up is one of most audience pleasing and accessible in Jazz.  This comeback has not occurred by accident but it is due to the gifted players who are now emerging on the scene.  Michel Benebig is surely one of these and his name often crops up in the same breath as titans like Dr Lonnie Smith.  IMG_4556 - Version 2

I was staying in Bush Street which is in the ‘Lower Nobs Hill’ area of Frisco; just above Union Square.  When I got an update of Michel and Shem’s itinerary, it surprised me to see that one of his gigs was in that very street and so my son and I duly headed off there on the appointed night.  By ingrained habit we skirted the ‘Tenderloin’ and descended toward Hayes Valley.  A wisp of escaping sound told us that we had arrived and we entered a nicely appointed modern building, wedged in between two deco ones.  Leaving the temperate San Francisco winters night we wound down into the basement.  The warm sound of the B3, groove guitar and drums washing away any vestige of the night air.  My sons eyes lit up.  “Wow” he said.  “This sounds great” and it surely did.  This was the new band I had been keen to hear.

That particular band is almost the same as on the recent ‘Yellow Purple’ album (with the exception of the drummer Akira Tana).  Akira Tana is well-known around San Francisco where he had just recorded his big band album, followed by a gig at Yoshi’s.   With Michel on B3 (and such a beautiful machine it was to) and Shem on vocals they couldn’t go wrong.

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On guitar they had Carl Lockett who is an ideal groove merchant.   It was immediately obvious that his blues filled licks blended well with Michel’s and that indicated a great night was before us.  Carl Lockett has been a favourite with groove musicians for years having toured with Joey defrancesco, Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff and Randy Crawford to name but a few.   With more than 15 recordings under his belt he was the right choice for this gig and for the ‘Yellow Purple’ album.  The album does not feature Akira Tana but instead the respected West Coast drummer James Levi appears.   He lays down a tight insistent groove and swings in ways that only truly experienced groove drummers can.   When you listen to the album you will notice how these guys listen to each other: in fact it’s hard to believe that the band hasn’t been together for years.  IMG_3289 - Version 2

Shem gave her usual polished performance whether delivering the Bessie Smith’s slow burner ‘It Won’t be You’ or the more uptempo ‘Keep it to Yourself’ by Sonny Boy Williamson.  She only features in two numbers on the album, but at the gig she sang many of her own compositions.   Shem is an engaging performer and especially when singing in her native French tongue.

All of the other compositions on ‘Yellow Purple’ are Michel’s and these are as much a strength as his killing organ work.   He is absolutely astonishing on B3 and to hear him is to be instantly transported back to the days of Jimmy McGriff or Brother Jack Macduff.   His ability to work those pedals, milk the grooves and swing so hard that it makes your head swim, marks him out as a true master.   The tracks ‘Yellow Purple’ and ‘Sunlight Special’ are especially strong.

New Caledonia can rightly feel proud of Michel.  He is reaching wider audiences every day and one day the South Pacific could lose him to the USA.  Grab a piece of this master musician now and be sure to buy this and any other of his albums as they become available (see below).   Anyone in Wellington early next month can see him in person so watch for the gigs announcements or contact Nick Granville.

What: ‘Yellow Purple’ – Michele Benebig (B3), Shem Benebig (vocals), Carl Lockett (guitar), James Levi (drums, percussion).

Where to buy: www.michelbenebig.com

Reuben Derrick’s Hound Dogs @ CJC

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Dog bands are a recurring theme in New Zealand jazz.  There was Neil Watson’s ‘Zen Dogs’, ‘Dr Dog’ (Roger Manins, Kevin Field, Oli Holland & Ron Samsom) and now Reuben Derrick’s ‘Hound Dogs’.   To redress any perceived species imbalance, I was glad to see that visiter Mike Stern recently put out an album titled ‘Who Let the Cats Out’.

Reuben has played in Auckland before but I missed that gig.  I was glad that I did not miss this one.   With the exception of Alan Brown, all of the band have either lived in or have some strong connection with Christchurch.   Reuben Derrick is an important part of the Christchurch Jazz scene and with the Christchurch Festival underway very shortly we were lucky to lure him up for the gig.  In hound dog fashion he had tracked down an impressive set list, including several tunes each by Monk, Steve Lacy and Charles Mingus.  The two Monk tunes were ‘Ask me Now’ and ‘Bolivar Blues’.

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Both are familiar to me but it took me a moment to realise what they were.  They breathed new life into these much-loved but less-often-heard tunes and amazingly they made them sound as fresh as paint.  They did so without reharmonising, nor tackling them in an especially angular way (That would be pointless as you can’t out-Monk, Monk).  There were not so many jagged edges but these were great renditions.  Authentic and so accessible that their ‘Bolivar Blues’ has been singing in my head ever since.

Reuben plays an older instrument and the character of that tenor really suits his bluesy-earthy approach.   Some tenor players depart the melody before it is stated but Reuben stands on confident ground.  He is a an intensely melodic player but there is nothing clichéd about his approach.  This is most often seen in the older bop era players, who were able to stay close to the melody but still tell a great story.   Another thing that I liked was the way that his improvisations unfolded with an inner logic.  A logic that allowed you to trace the steps back in your mind.   A journey shared.

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I am not sure whether Alan Brown has played with Reuben before, but he couldn’t have fitted in better.   I have learned over the years that Alan is not only gifted on keys and piano but he is able to adapt to a multitude of styles.   I have not heard him play Monk before but he gave the band exactly what they required.   Solid decisive chord work and inventive solo’s.  He navigated Monk’s choppy lines with the same ease that he tackled the very different compositions of Steve Lacy.  IMG_8231 - Version 2

There were two familiar faces in the lineup, Andy Keegan and Richie Pickard.   Andy has played a number of gigs about town since moving up from Christchurch and he is often at the CJC.  He is a versatile drummer and we saw that demonstrated as he moved effortlessly from colourist to bop drummer during the gig.   I like his time feel and the fact that he lays down a solid beat without drowning out the others.  He plays to the room.   I often tease him by saying that he is a very photographer friendly drummer, as he often leans forward as he gets into a number.

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Ritchie has also played the CJC before and the last time I saw him was with Dixon Nacey.   This is very different material to the high-octane tunes that Dixon was playing and so I saw another side of him in the Hound Dogs.  I found him especially strong on the ballad material like the quirky ‘Ask Me Now’.   The other member of the Hound Dogs is guitarist Sam Taylor and he is not seen in the CJC very often.   That is a pity because his sound is different from many of the Auckland guitarists.  He draws more deeply on traditional Jazz guitar and he does so convincingly.  At times his comping was very reminiscent of Freddy Green’s; a quiet rhythmic strum that pulled back slightly on the beat and gave the number a deep swing feel.  His comping may reference swing but his lines are pure Be bop or Post bop.

These guys may not get together very often but when they do they are a solid unit.  With a great sound like that, I hope that they come and play the club again

Who: Reuben Derrick’s Hound Dogs:  Reuben Derrick (tenor), Alan Brown (piano), Sam Taylor (guitar), Richie Pickard (bass), Andy Keegan (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Brittomart 1885 Building Basement, Auckland 4th September 2013

Joel Haines trio @ CJC

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At its best Jazz is a place of unexpected intersections.  Being the music of appropriation there are deliberate collisions with other art forms and out of this comes new ideas and rich pickings.  The Joel Haines gig last week caught us by surprise as Joel seldom gigs these days.   He’s embedded deep within the session, film and TV world and his work will be known to most of us without realising it.   I have seen him perform a number of times over the years, but these outings are often in the role of sideman.  The last time I saw him was when his brother Nathan was in town.

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I really like his playing which infuses Rock and Country voicings into an open-ended Jazz vocabulary.   He musical lineage is impeccable as he comes from one of the most respected Jazz dynasties in New Zealand.  Father Kevin is a highly regarded and well recorded bass player, while brother Nathan is one of New Zealand’s best known and most respected Jazz exports.   This family has all bases covered with talent shared equally.

Joel is certainly not an extrovert and at this gig he sat huddled, as if subsumed by his rich-toned Ibanez.   When he leans forward to play, his long hair falls across his face and the effect is complete.  His sound however tells the opposite story, the shrinking of physical presence enables him to become the notes and the lines he plays.  There was only one announcement and there was only one number identified.

‘No introductions, lets just play”, he said quietly and they did.   On stage Joel is all about the music.

This is Jazz informed by Joel’s years at the ‘Cause Celebre’ and above all by his musical influences.  At times you can hear the echoes of Jimi Hendrix voicings or perhaps Bill Frisell, but the truth is that all of these influences arise from a deep well of ideas.  His material is predominantly lyrical and warm at heart.  You cannot separate this type of music from the film scores that have engaged us over the years.  Jazz and Movie sound tracks have been inextricably linked since Ellington’s ‘Anatomy of Murder’ or Miles ‘Escalator to the Scaffold’.   Joel works successfully in this world and a number of TV shows feature his music.  I am one of those people who remain after a movie is over, waiting for the music credits to scroll.  You would be surprised who you find in those fleeting glimpses.  I recently watched a great Sicilian move where John Surmon wrote and performed the soundtrack.  With the paucity of earning ability in Jazz, going into the studios or becoming a session musician has always been a good option.

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For the last two numbers Roger Manins joined them on tenor.  The tune ‘Lady Lywa’ (by brother Nathan) was wonderfully performed and I am glad it was in the mix (as the only tune composed by someone other than Joel).  This would be a contender for a New Zealand Jazz standard if given a chance.  It was not surprising that Roger blended in seamlessly, as he Ron, and Oli are constantly playing together and the material gave them a solid spring-board for improvising.

I can recall Nathan once putting a cupped hand to his ear during a gig and saying, “Listen to that, the warm hum of valves).   That hum was also evident between numbers at this gig, but for the main part the warmth emanated from the compositions and the ebb and flow of a solid performance.

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 1885 building, downtown Auckland

Who: Joel Haines (guitars), Oli Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums) – with guest Roger Manins (tenor).

The Nick Granville Group @ CJC

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On Wednesday the 21st of August ‘Rattle’ records launched Nick Granville’s ‘Refractions’ album.  Nick Granville needs no introduction to Wellington audiences, being a professional musician who works extensively throughout that city.  While he is not as well-known in Auckland, that is rapidly changing, as he has played a number of well received gigs here over the last year.  CJC audiences now look forward to his return.

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He is increasingly featured in the award-winning Roger Fox Wellington Jazz Orchestra and his recorded output as leader and sideman is growing by the year.  This latest album is definitely his best to date and there is every expectation that this upwards career trajectory will continue.  With this album his guitar chops are very much on display but it is the engaging warmth and unmistakable integrity that draws you into the project.  All of the numbers on the album are originals and all are either blues based or have a distinct blues feel.  Nick attributes this to the strong Scofield influence that has shaped his progress over the years.

There were mostly numbers from the current album featured at the CJC launch,  but we also heard a few updated older compositions.  As I am familiar with that material it gave some interesting points of comparison.  The stand out tune from that earlier period was ‘Somewhere You’ve Been’ which is a well crafted reharmonisation of the standard ‘Footsteps’.

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This album has a lot of strong points and compositionally it is a tour de force.   It pays a subtle but heart-felt homage to John Scofield without being slavishly imitative or needing to play Sco tunes.  Strong material like this just begs to played by the best musicians available and Nick has pulled this off.  Much of the material was composed while completing  his Masters at the Auckland University Jazz School, and this enabled him to utilise faculty members for the album.   The three who joined him on the album are Roger Manins (tenor sax), Oli Holland (bass) and Ron Samson (drums).   You would be hard put to find better musicians anywhere and they had obviously warmed to the task in hand.

A really good album is one that manages to sound familiar, yet original and Nick Granville has achieved this rare feat.

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Roger Manins has a busy schedule teaching, co-managing the CJC and gigging around New Zealand and Australia.   There is nothing that he can’t tackle as he is a very strong reader and a fearless improviser.  His storytelling ability and improvisational inventiveness mark him out.  Whether delivering a breathy ballad, where each gentle rasp of air counts,  or a fast burner where the furies rain down, he’s a phenomena.

Oli Holland had barely returned from a holiday in Germany, but he showed no sign of jet lag on the band stand.  He and Nick go back a way and so it was not surprising that he is on the album.  Oli is one of the strongest bass players in New Zealand.  At times he surprised as he delivered the sort of raunchy biting grooves that you would expect of an electric bass.  Mostly though we heard his deeply resonant fluid lines weaving skilfully throughout the mix.  photo copy 6 - Version 2

I always enjoy Ron Samsom’s drumming but he really stands out on this album.   When you listen to ‘Gloves off’ in particular you will hear what a multi faceted Jazz drummer can do.  This hard-driving funky tune is my personal favourite.  It has a punch to rival Jack Johnson’s and an edgy groove that delights.  It is one of the tracks that I return to again and again.  Throughout this album Ron Samsom is marvellous.

The other strength is the quality of the recording and this is largely down to ‘Rattle’s’ Steve Garden.  Every detail from the cover art to the sound quality is meticulously attended to.  When it comes to mixing and mastering Steve has a special touch and the results here attest to that.

Nick Granville has pulled one out of the bag here and I strongly advise people to grab a copy.

What: Nick Granville Band.  Nick Granville (guitar, leader, compositions), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone). Oli Holland (bass), Ron Samson (drums). Released by Rattle.

Where: the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Wednesday 21st August 2013

Neil Watson Four @ CJC

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I love any music that can be termed ‘Space Jazz’ or ‘Space Funk’.  I have no idea if this is a real genre but I follow it anyhow.  Living through the era of Sputnik and being caught up in the excitement that followed I was nudged in that direction by the events of the day.  After that I zeroed in on space themed music.  Some of it was corny (Telstar) and some was grandiose (Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets’).  Not long after this I stumbled across Jazz and the sonic explorations perfectly fitted my longing for a music that evoked the wonders of space while encompassing the quirks of our humanity.   Music performed by artists who stood in awe at the edge of the universe and then stepped free of its limits.  IMG_8030 - Version 2

The Neil Watson Four is a recently formed Auckland band who have no fear of galactic explorations.  With the aid of a doogon (explained later), tenor saxophone, drum kit, upright bass and four overly fertile imaginations, they bent and pulled at the fabric of the universe.  This is a band that defies the norms and swallows genres whole.  There is no sense of deliberate eclecticism here and no self-conscious navel gazing.  It is original and you get the sense that what happens sometimes surprises the musicians.

The feeling is often that of organised chaos, a loose organic vibe that works well because they have entered into a collective state of being.  While Neil Watson pilots the ship there is no heavy controlling hand but his benign presence presides.  He has gifted his vision and let the possibilities unravel as they may.  IMG_8057 - Version 2

Neil Watson is not only a great guitarist but his sense of humour is original.  A sort of postmodern Zen; dropping casual asides into the banter in ways that confound.   The You Tube clip that I will post is ‘Renamed’.  When Neil announced that tune he casually added, “I hated the original name”.  This sort of humour leaves you momentarily confused and then laughing out loud.  They also played a lot of tunes named after children, girlfriends or spouses.   The tunes were all great and particularly ‘Renamed’ (Watson), ‘Eleanor’ (Dennison), ‘Rosie My Dear’ (Gibson) and ‘Theo’ (Allen).  There were ballads and country fare as well.  their rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ was so poignant that any Scots in the audience would have been fumbling in their sporrans for a tartan hanky.

Neil Watson is an original guitarist and he is at his best when a leader.  He brings a rag-tag of interesting sounds and ideas to the bandstand and then knits them together.  There is also something akin to Zorn in much of this material.  Once the skeletal structure and the overall concept is in place the music is liberated.  The interactions between men and machines are fluid and what the audience sees will never be repeated.   For this to work well he needs the right collaborators and he has certainly struck gold this time.  IMG_8044

Cam Allen usually plays alto but he is also a fine tenor player.   I have also seen him manipulate a Moog to great effect.  On Wednesday night he played a Buescher ‘Big B’ Aristocrat and it gave out an earthy, and slightly raspy sound.  Word has it that it is a tricky beast to play but it sounded just right for this gig.   I risk committing heresy here but a Selmer would have been too clean for this music.  His interesting modal explorations and his flow of ideas mark him out as a gifted player.  This is hardly surprising as he honed his craft on the highly competitive American Jazz scene.  In this band he doubled on ‘doogon’.   This is very much a ‘Kiwi’ thing and it is best described as an array of electronic and acoustic sound enhancements strapped to a hardware-store hand truck.  Resembling a cross between a Dalek and an IED with its glowing blue lights, digital clock console and multiple knobs (many strapped on with duct tape); it can envelop the audience with shrieks that resemble a Banshee at a rocket launch.  IMG_8075 - Version 2

All of the instruments including the drums feed into this machine and the effects are astounding.  On upright bass was the respected Tom Dennison who used his arco technique to very good effect.  This bowing worked well with the Doogon, which under Allen’s guidance resonated in ways that would have astounded the instruments makers.  Dennison has a lovely rich tone and we heard plenty of that.  What can never be overlooked are his compositional skills (See an earlier post on his ‘Zoo’ album).  For this gig he contributed the lovely ‘Eleanor’ which he dedicated to his girlfriend.  He seldom appears at the CJC these days and it was a pleasure to see him there again.

Perhaps the biggest masterstroke was adding Frank Gibson Jr into the mix.  This inclusion of a drummer most known for his Post Bop chops may have raised a few eyebrows at first, but Gibson is no stranger to fusion.  He demonstrated just how perfectly he can execute this material and he showed us all what free and imaginative drumming looks like.  I heard a band member saying later that having Frank behind them, lifted the whole performance.   IMG_8050 - Version 2

I am an unreformed devotee of music like this and whether you call it Space Funk, Space Jazz, Eclectic Fusion or just wild music I will be its cheer leader.   This is an itch that just begged to be scratched and I am glad that Neil gave us a taste of it.  Besides the wilder numbers there were one or two ballads to balance out the program.  Overall it was a very satisfying experience.

It was somehow fitting that the band performed on the day that NASA verified that Voyager One had left our solar system and entered interstellar space.  

Who: The Neil Watson Four.  Neil Watson (guitar), Cam Allen (tenor, doogon), Tom Dennison (bass), Frank Gibson Jr (drums).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Building, Brittomart, Auckland.

Photographs by John Fenton & Ben McNicoll

Trudy Lile Quartet @ CJC

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Trudy Lile has unerring radar when it comes to locating tunes from the lessor known jazz lexicon.  Tunes that she skilfully transforms into glowing vibrant flute friendly arrangements. Her choice of ‘Steppin Out’ is a good example.  Kurt Elling recently sung this wonderful (but difficult) Joe Jackson tune on his ‘At The Gate’ album.  Not only was it a great choice and well executed but her new lineup rose to the occasion; giving her all the support she needed and more.

Trudy Lile last performed at the CJC about 8 months ago and she had a different line-up then.  Last Wednesday she had assembled a particularly solid rhythm section in Alan Brown (piano), Cameron McArthur (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums).  Trudy is often adventurous in her choice of material, mixing reworked standards, originals and virtually unknown tunes scavenged from interesting nooks and crannies.  On Wednesday she held to this course and it paid off.  IMG_8013 - Version 2

Among the other numbers performed was a beautiful rendition of ‘Niama’ (Coltrane), ‘Flute Salad’ (Lile) – I love this tune with its swinging happy vibe and another Lile original ‘Domestic Bliss’.   Trudy explained that this number was somewhat tongue in cheek, as her own experiences of domestic bliss at times resembled the TV character Miranda’s.

Trudy Lile is well-known about New Zealand as a gifted flutist.   While the flute is her prime instrument she also demonstrates impressive vocal skills.  We saw both on Wednesday.  I have always sensed a pied-piper quality to her work and as she dances and sways during the flute solos it is impossible not to be captivated.  Dedicated Jazz-flute players have been rare over the years and some critics have been disparaging about the lack of expression in that horn.   If they listened to Trudy they would shut up, sit down and recant.   In her hands the flute has all of the expression you could ever want

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I must zero in on Alan Brown here as he was just superb.  OK, Alan always puts on a great performance but this facet of his playing is not seen as often.  Alan is rightly famous for his soul infused Jazz funk.  He was a power house of inventiveness on Wednesday,but more importantly he established beyond a shred of doubt that he is a stellar straight-ahead Jazz pianist.   His playing is always strongly rhythmic and that is what we expect from Alan, but to see him as an accompanist in this context was revealing.  Anyone hearing a Kurt Elling number such as ‘Steppin out’, notices his arranger and pianist Laurence Hobgood.   Hobgood is a dedicated accompanist of the highest order.   Alan communicated a special quality also.  He supported vocals (and flute) in the way Hobgood does and it was pure gold.  After seeing him in this context I would really like to hear him do a piano trio gig sometime, complete with a few straight-ahead standards.

Cameron McArthur has become the first choice bass player for Auckland gigs and every time he appears (which is often) he impresses afresh.   He is gaining a substantial group of supporters about town and his solos always elicit enthusiastic calls and strong applause.

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Ron Samsom is quite simply the best there is on traps and his tasteful underpinning of any band is inspiring.  On this gig he alternated between quieter brush or mallets work and power house grooves which lifted the others to greater heights.   Sometimes when I hear Ron’s drumming I can discern a pulse that goes way beyond the room.  Perhaps it is the pulse of the Jazz tradition itself, the history and the future rolled together in a beat.

This band was the perfect foil for Trudy and she took full advantage of it.

Who: The Trudy Lile Quartet – Trudy Lile (leader, vocals, flute).  Alan Brown (piano), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ron Samsom (drums).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Brittomart 1885, Wednesday 7th August 2013.

Reuben Bradley trio @ CJC + Mantis Album

Reuben Mantis

After the success of ‘Mantis’ and ‘Resonator’, Auckland audiences were keen to see a Reuben Bradley band perform again.   Reuben is one of those musical drummers that Wellington seems to specialise in and he clearly has an eye for an epic project.  For ‘Mantis’ he engaged some real heavyweights.  Roger Manins (tenor), Matt Penman (bass), James Illingworth (piano), John Psathas (arrangements) and the New Zealand String Quartet.  The tunes were all Drew Menzies originals, with arrangements by Reuben Bradley and John Psathas.

Mantis is a celebration of the works of Drew Menzies, a highly respected bass player in both the Jazz and Classical spheres and whose compositions had never been recorded before.  What is well communicated during this project is the connection that the musicians have with the material and what also comes across is Reuben’s obvious affection for his departed friend.  Reuben’s liner notes give us a fascinating account how the pieces came back to life, drawing us into a kaleidoscope of quirky lead sheets and a musicians world.  In some cases the tunes re-evolved from embryonic beginnings, coaxed by Reuben’s pen.   I urge everyone to buy the album.  The tunes are fresh but at the same time strangely familiar and this quality anoints them as being timeless, potential local standards.

While no added incentives are needed to purchase ‘Mantis’, it is worth pointing out that the proceeds of the sale go to the Drew Menzies Memorial Scholarship for young New Zealand bass players.  ‘Mantis’ was featured as a key event at the recent Wellington Jazz festival and this week it was a highlight of the Nelson Jazz Festival.  Credit to Creative New Zealand for funding such an important project and to Rattle Records for the album.  It is hardly surprising that musicians of this quality delivered so royally, but a nod to John Psathas and the New Zealand String Quartet is appropriate here.  No matter how experienced a classical string quartet, there is always a challenge when playing Jazz compositions.   The quartet’s unmistakeable chops and John Psathas airy charts took this exactly where it needed to go.

Having Matt Penman aboard was a huge coup.  This expat Kiwi bass player is now one of the real heavyweights of the North American scene.  His work with the San Francisco Jazz Collective, James Farm, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Kenny Werner, Joe Lovano, Fred Hersch, plus his own ground breaking albums, mark him out as one New Zealand’s greatest Jazz exports.  His Bass playing on this album is simply wonderful and no superlatives can do it justice.   Drew would have been extremely pleased.

Reuben won the Tui Best Jazz Album of the Year with his ‘Resonator’ album in 2010.   Roger Manins was also on that album and these two musicians work together whenever possible.  Both of the above albums are adventurous and in their different ways lay down benchmarks for what’s good and original about New Zealand Jazz.

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When Reuben came to the CJC on the 31st July, the working unit was pared back to drums, tenor sax and bass.   On Sax was Roger Manins who has shown time and again that he can give of his best in any configuration.  This sort of trio is wide open for possibilities and the lack of any chordal underpinning leaves the musicians open to risk, but completely free to explore melody and form.  None of the trio were strangers to this format.

I have often watched Roger stepping free of the boundaries, like an anarchic motorist on some long empty highway who has just realised that the normal road rules will not apply there.  I was also delighted to see Roger using his Radio Model, Cigar Cutter Selmer for the first time.  A sleek silvery goddess of bygone years which oozes charm.  In Rogers hands it purrs dangerously like an ancient vixen, brought back to life to seduce us all.

Brett Hirst is a popular Australian bassist and a list his former band mates would read like the who’s who of Aussie Jazz.  He has a big sound and an instinctive rhythmic feel which lent itself perfectly to this gig.  In their usual fashion Australia has claimed him as their own but he is originally from New Zealand like so many artists doing well across the Tasman.

Reuben, Roger and Brett work extremely well together and so it was fitting that they should tackle the work of Drew Menzies from a fresh angle.   While there was a tune or so from ‘Resonator’ in the set list, the bulk of the material played was from ‘Mantis’.  It is Reuben’s hope that these tunes will become mainstays in the Kiwi Jazz repertoire and I hope that this comes to pass.  I have heard at least one rendition of ‘Ladies Man’ played recently at a gig and so the trend may gather steam.

Who: Reuben Bradley Trio – Reuben Bradley (drums) (arrangements), Roger Manins (tenor sax), Brett Hirst (bass).

What: ‘Mantis’ (and ‘Resonator’) both available from Rattle.

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Brittomart 1885 Building downtown Auckland

Mike Nock + Roger Manins, Frank Gibson@ CJC

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It was sometime in early June when I first heard the news.  I was sitting with Roger, talking music and shooting the breeze about who we rated.  Suddenly he half turned and said, “Mikes coming back to do a CJC gig”.  The words hung in the air like a siren song and for me the impatient waiting began from that moment.  If Mike Nock was coming to town there would be magic aplenty.  That’s what it meant.  That is what it has always meant.

The word seeped out, first to the music students and then to the wider world, like ripples in an ever-widening arc.  The club would be full that night.

Closer to the gig Roger asked Mike who he wanted in the band.  They quickly settled on a trio format, not your usual piano trio but one with piano, tenor saxophone and drums.   Roger Manins on tenor, Frank Gibson on drums.  Mike had jettisoned the anchor for this gig and he was quite definite about that, no bass.   This is a challenging lineup for a pianist (and for the other band members) because no-one is there to hold the centre.   If you slip there is greater distance to fall.  In this different space wonderful things can also happen and they did.  This was a night among nights.

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Barely able to contain my impatience I rolled into the club foyer three-quarters of an hour early.   The queue was already snaking back past the basement stairway and well into the upstairs bar.  A seething mass of eager faces.  When the doors finally opened there was Mike sitting sideways on the piano stool and Roger was blowing a few scales nearby.  The music stand sitting to one side abandoned, an unnecessary distraction, in a free ranging gig going where the music took it.

Before the first set I caught up with Mike, talking about his various projects (he was playing with a New Zealand string quartet the next night).  He told me that he was coming back to the CJC with his newest Australian trio in a few months.  Next time bass and drums.  We talked a bit about Jazz musicians from the past, Kiwi’s that he had played with and then the discussion shifted to the older pianists who straddled the swing to bop era.  Like all great pianists Mike lets the entire history of Jazz fall under his fingers and so I asked him about players like Hank Jones and Mary Lou Williams.  When I listen to them I hear such strong left hands, walking chords, syncopation, hinting at a time when ‘harlem stride’ was still an influence.  “The newer and stronger bass players changed that” said Mike.  “As the bass lines become stronger and pickups better the need for such dominant left hand work fell away.  There was too much conflict”.   As a non musician I had never considered that and it all made perfect sense.  I marvelled all the more that Be Bop/Post Bop greats like Hank Jones kept a touch of this earlier style and even when accompanied by strong bass players like Ray Brown, George Mraz and Ron Carter.   I wondered if we would ever see those strong left hand stylists again.   I soon got my answer.

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The set list was not really planned and it changed and evolved as the evening wore on.   The numbers selected were all standards, but they were somehow fresh, as if revealed for the very first time.   The first number was ‘When Your Smiling’ (Shay/Fisher/Goodwin 1889) and the second number was ‘Gone With The Wind’ (Allie Wrubel 1937).  Those two numbers coming together had me wracking my brain as to where I had heard them, heard them played together.  Then it came to me, they were both on one of the earliest of the Brubeck Quartet albums.   ‘Dave Brubeck at Storyville 1954’ was a wild live recording that lacked polish but oozed soul and immediacy.  Afterwards Mike announced  that a Brubeck album had inspired him to play that number – bingo.  These are the connections we love.   If you ingest a large dollop of Jazz history the memories will reward you.  IMG_7901 - Version 2

As they played through the first set I realised that the lack of a bass had not impeded them at all.  There it was, that strong left hand of Hank Jones, working the mid lower register while wonderful modern chords and runs flew from his darting right hand.   This was a master class for the senses to grapple with, giving us an unparalleled taste of Jazz piano mastery from an oblique angle.  No matter what Mike threw his way Roger matched it as they danced in and out of reach like well matched prize fighters .  These two have an uncanny level of communication.  It was even more evident later when they played ‘Softly as a Morning Sunrise” (Romberg/Hammerstein).  They had been considering what to play next when Frank Gibson suggested it.  Heads nodded in agreement and Frank set the number up nicely with a melodic intro on his traps.   “We will just see where this goes” said Mike, “could be anywhere”and he proceeded to pick at the bones of the melody.   Where it went was somewhere wonderful.  This is where the magic truly occurred, a moment to be savoured by all present.

They had begun the number, sparingly at first, soon more purposefully.  The level of interplay increased as they unpicked the tune.  Soon all three were working and pulling at the tune like it was a joyful game.  As Roger soloed I watched the trio inching up the intensity by degrees.  At first Roger had tapped out time with his right foot as he played, now he was pawing at the ground like a bull about to charge.   Mike was rocking madly and then standing and dancing some crazy dance.  Frank too was rolling with the beat.  By now they were way outside – blowing free of all constraints.   It was a moment to savour.  The moment.

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As I watched these three, so attuned, a thought struck me,  Mike Nock is originally from Ngaruawahia, Roger from Waiuku.   These two small country towns are close to each other.  What are the odds that rural New Zealand would produce two musicians of this quality.  Maybe it was something in the upper Waikato water supply?

When Jazz musicians are enjoying themselves there are always moments of hilarity, but on this night the best moment came from an unexpected quarter.   The CJC was full, so full  that dozens of people were turned away at the door due to the fire regulations. Outside it was winter, but inside it was hot as hell.  Mike by now stripped to his T-shirt asked if there was any talcum powder for his hands, which were slippery from the exertion.   Caro Manins duly produced a talcum powder container.  Mike wrestled with the lid for a few minutes and then handed it to someone else to unscrew.   Bigger and younger blokes stepped forward in turn, each saying that they were up to the task, but none could dislodge that damn lid.  “Take it back to the shop” said one, “it’s a faulty product”.  At this point a diminutive young woman took the container from the frustrated men, gently flicked off the child proof lock and opened it.  Men often forget the golden rule in these situations, ask a woman.  IMG_7936 - Version 2

During the second set Kim Paterson and Brian Smith sat in for a number or two.   Kim and Brian go back a long way with Mike and both have recorded with him.

As the enjoyment washed over me I could hear the words of Sean Wayland from a month earlier as he announced his gig.  “New Zealand I would like to thank you for Mike Nock”.   With you on that brother.

Who: Mike Nock with: Roger Manins & Frank Gibson Jr.

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 24th July 2013

And a clip by Jen Sol from the same gig:

Caitlin Smith @ CJC (with Kevin Field trio)

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Caitlin Smith is well-known to those who follow the Auckland music scene, where she is highly respected as a vocalist and voice coach.  Scrolling down her resumé reveals just how active she has been over the years and just how far-reaching her influence is.

She sits comfortably on the Soul to Jazz spectrum, often occupying a stylistic space similar to that of Joanie Mitchell or Ricky Lee Jones.  Her material’s drawn from a mix of originals, standards and pop covers but all interpreted in her own unique way.  She has an impressive vocal range and she can captivate an audience with incredible ease.   She is a true performer and her elegance and professionalism are immediately evident.  It takes years for a performer to look this comfortable in front of an audience and many never achieve it.  The fact that she has a severe vision impairment just adds to her allure.

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The set list was mainly from her latest album ‘Stories to tell: The Thorndon Project’.  Sponsored by The Disabilities Commission and PVINZ (Parents of Vision Impaired New Zealand).  Caitlin and the drummer on the album Mark Lockett (also vision impaired) had pulled together an impressive lineup for the session.    Caitlin (vocals), Alan Brown (organ), Paul Van Ross (saxophone, flute), Mark Lockett (drums).   The purpose of the album is to raise awareness around disability issues and to highlight the dedication of the parents caring for those with disabilities.  This hit me right where I live, because my granddaughter has cerebral palsy and I know just how incredibly hard it is for her.  I am also hyper aware of the sacrifices that her mother (my daughter) lovingly makes each day.

The creative arts are often at the forefront of such campaigns and this one is personal and special.  The personnel assembled for the album are all renowned musicians and while three hail from New Zealand, they are a truly international lineup.   Paul Van Ross is from Melbourne, but he is currently in New York.   Mark Lockett is originally from Wellington but he recently moved to New York.  Alan Brown has a legendary status on the New Zealand music scene and works, performs and teaches around Auckland.

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Caitlin had a different band when she appeared at the CJC.  Kevin Field, a regular accompanist for Caitlin had just returned from recording in New York (I am particularly excited about that, as he recorded with Matt Penman and Nir Felder).   Kevin is an extraordinary pianist and leader but he also knows how to accompany a singer.  Anything involving Kevin Field will be worth hearing.  On bass was Vanessa McGowan who bowled me over with her sound and musicality.  I have heard her before but with bigger groups, where she had blended into the mix as a good bass player should in such situations.  In this trio setting she shone.  Her lines were great, but it was the fat warm sound that really captivated me.   She can sing as well.   More of her in trio settings please.  The remaining member was Ron Samsom and he can bring out the best in any band. Whether on mallets, sticks or brushes, Ron is the person you want in your band.   He is simply one of the best traps drummers in New Zealand.  IMG_7830 - Version 2

Caitlin’s own composition ‘In Between’ was impressive and her interpretation of ‘I Don’t Want to Waist my Time on Music you Don’t Really Need’ (Over the Rhine) was edgy and soul infused.    I have chosen a video clip from her CJC band to post; Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’.   When I panned to the audience, what the camera failed to pick up out of the darkness was Trudy Lile coming in on the chorus.  Vanessa McGowan also sang beautiful harmony on the chorus.  Jazz singing is evolving and while perhaps this was not Jazz singing in the traditional sense it was a pleasure to hear.   The feel good factor should never be overlooked and Caitlin delivered this.

Dedicated to those with severe disabilities and to their support networks – for Mala and Jennie especially

Who: Caitlin Smith (vocals, leader, composition), Kevin Field (piano), Vanessa McGowan (bass, vocals), Ron Samsom (drums).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Building, Brittomart, Auckland.

Album: ‘Stories to Tell: The Thorndon Project’  PVINZ imprint – available from www.caitlinsmith.com

Conner McAneny @ CJC (+Nacey/McArthur/Samsom)

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Conner McAneny has played at the CJC on previous occasions, but this is the first time that he has done two sets as leader.  He was ably abetted by the Dixon Nacey trio (with Ron Samsom and Cameron Mc Arthur).   The sets were a mix of standards and originals.   It was particularly nice to hear the fabulous Dixon Nacey composition ‘The Lion’ played again and even better to hear Connor tackle the Lennon/McCartney composition ‘And I love Her’.

For me these two tunes stood out, but for very different reasons.   ‘The Lion’ is from Oxide the second Samsom/Nacey/Haines album and it is a great composition.   The tune moves through several distinct phases, drawing the listener ever deeper as the melody unfolds.  The structure lends itself well to improvisation.  Conner took a different approach to that of Kevin Field (who appeared with Dixon, Ron and Kevin Haines on Oxide) and it worked well.  I like to see local compositions being taken up by other local bands , especially if they are compelling.  We must create our own standards, because we have musicians with good writing skills in our midst.  Having two of the Oxide band in his support group made this an obvious choice.

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The Lennon/McCartney composition ‘And I Love Her’ worked very well as a Jazz ballad and if the arrangement was Connors particularly big ups to him.   I can clearly recall the Diana Krall version (2009), arranged beautifully by John Clayton.  There was also a John Abercrombie version from around that time.  Both were terrific in different ways, but the Sarah Vaughn cover of 1969 sits very awkwardly in her repertoire.  As much as I love Sarah Vaughn, this particular rendering sank like a stone.

I think time is the vital ingredient here.   It was as if there was a musical ‘Wallace Line’ that separated older players from younger in this regard.   For my generation (those alive when the Beatles arrived on the scene) the idea of their material ever becoming jazz standards was strange.  When musicians of the 50’s and 60’s attempted Beatles or Rolling Stones tunes there was an awkwardness and a self-consciousness about what they were attempting.   This is not at all evident in a younger generation of musicians like Uri Caine whose ‘Blackbird’ (McCartney) from the 2001 album ‘Solitaire’, stands up perfectly against any Tin Pan Ally tune.  In my view only a Brad Mehldau could pull off a version of ‘Hey Joe’ so convincingly.  He is young enough to see the tune for what it is and what it could be.  My generation saw such massive hits as the enemy of Jazz; brilliant, compelling but still the enemy.  Perhaps Gil Evans was the exception.  IMG_7799 - Version 2

Connor works hard at his craft and each time he appears we see a more rounded artist.   I have often written about the skills of the other band members and suffice to say, where they go good improvised music follows.

What: Conner McAneny (piano) with Dixon Nacey (guitar), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ron Samsom (drums).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Basement, Auckland July 10th 2013

Aaron Blakey (Sydney) @ CJC

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Aaron Blakey is someone you warm to instantly.  He communicates with ease and has a relaxed manner about him.  The same applies to his approach to music.  I have heard pianists who feel that they must astound with every note and while that is all well and good, it can be exhausting for everyone.  The more experienced musicians understand that performance is not only about original ideas, but also about communication.  The latter involves working with an audience while you tell an interesting musical story.  I would place Aaron in that category.

Aaron left Auckland for Japan in 2008 and he gigged regularly around Tokyo.  After a few years he returned to study in Auckland before moving to Sydney in 2011.   On this gig his accompanists were Roger Manins on tenor saxophone, Cameron McArthur on bass and Adam Tobeck on drums.  Roger Manins is at the peak of his powers and after his very successful stint with the JMO in New Zealand and Australia, he is more on fire than ever.   He is one of the best saxophonists in Australasia and so having him in any group lifts their game.  Putting him with a fine musician like Aaron Blakey produces especially rewarding results.  IMG_7746 - Version 2

Anyone who has read these reviews or spent some time at Auckland Jazz gigs in the last six months will know just how swiftly Cameron McArthur is rising through the ranks.    He is one of a small handful of must-have bass players when visitors come to town.   Adam Tobeck is fast becoming a regular at the CJC and his abilities were evident at this gig

With two notable exceptions Aaron played his own material and the compositions were all named after people he knows.  With each song, we were ushered into Aaron’s private world.  A world peopled by close friends, eccentric waiters, babies and delightful dancing children.  At the end of the two sets I felt that I would recognise these people if I saw them; so convincing was the imagery.  Live improvised music creates shapes and forms which you can almost grasp, but which evaporate and dissolve in unpredictable ways.  What remains is a series of impressions, a filigree journey imprinted on the ether.  IMG_7759 - Version 2

A good example of this was a tune called ‘Sinclair’s Routine’.  Aaron named this after a waiter who worked at a  busy Surrey Hills restaurant.  He was using the establishments piano to practice one morning and trying out a few ideas, when the waiter said, “I like that, it helps me to go about my routine” .    Not your usual musical commentary but it ended up as great tune and gave us a window into that particular moment in time.   It worked for me on several levels but primarily because I could picture and hear the event in my mind’s eye.   There was a song ‘Jonathan B’ dedicated to an old friend from New Zealand.  As Aaron was explaining the origins of the tune he looked up and said, ” Oh there he is, he just walked in – hi man”,  Once again we connected the song to time and place and this gave added weight to the number.

The track that I have recorded on video is “One for Steve”, which is a dedication to the much admired Steve Barry.   This was certainly a connection that hung in the air as the band played through the number.  Steve (another ex-pat Aucklander) had been playing that very piano only a few weeks earlier and the echo of his gigs was relived through the tribute.

The first of two standards was ‘My Song’ (Keith Jarrett).  It amazes me that ‘My Song’ is hardly ever performed.  There is a view that Jarrett’s three recorded versions are so contained, that musicians shy away from it.  More is the pity because most jazz lovers rate it highly.  During the introduction Roger Manins helpfully suggested that Aaron would actually be doing the Elton John “My Song’.   This was a solo performance and you could have heard a pin drop.  It was great to hear it done and great to hear it done so well.  IMG_7719

The second standard was the Cole Porter tune ‘I Love You’ from the musical Mexican Hayride, placed squarely in the Jazz Lexicon by John Coltrane (Lush Life album).  While Coltrane’s version was with Saxophone, Bass and drums, The version on this night was a duo featuring piano and tenor saxophone (Manins and Blakey).   That these two have been friends for years and that they have worked together many times before, became evident on this number.   The sensitive interplay between them was truly extraordinary and although they took quite different approaches to the task in hand the synergy was uncanny.  It was one of the wow moments which Jazz audiences live for and to my annoyance I had run out of HD video-tape just a moment before it started.   I am sure that they will play it again sometime, as Aaron has promised to return. We hope that he will not leave it two and a half years this time.

For those wanting more there was a Roger Manins gig down at Frankie’s Bar in Wyndom Street two nights later.   This was a similar lineup, but with premier drummer Ron Samsom at the kit.  For this gig Aaron had brought his Fender Rhodes along.  They swung mightily and as I listened I could hear Ron pulling back on the beat.  There is some fine music around Auckland.  All it needs is our continued support.

Who: Aaron Blakey (piano) with – Roger Manins (tenor sax), Cameron MacArthur (bass), Adam Tobeck (drums).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Auckland 3rd July 2013

Mike Nock – albums reviewed

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Mike Nock: Hear & Know / Kindred

Mike Nock is always capable of surprising and this has long been his hallmark.  A restless innovator and improviser who never settles on his laurels, Nock is surpassing himself yet again.  ‘Hear and Know’ was recorded in 2011 following his aptly named and deeply satisfying ‘Accumulation of Subtleties’ album.

On ‘Hear & Know’ he is again accompanied by brothers Ben Waples (Bass) & James Waples (drums).  There is an unmistakable synergy between these three and so adding Karl Laskowski (tenor sax) and Ken Allars (trumpet) had its risks.  While there is a different dynamic and altered textural qualities, the magic of intimacy is maintained.   It carries over much of the subtle interplay of the earlier album but creates a different range of moods as well.

I was always impressed by the subtle and profound sub-divisions of mood in the ancient Japanese Haiku.  The almost untranslatable ‘wabi-sabi’ are the moods invoked when we can almost touch something profound, sense it and appreciate the mood, but know that it will be forever illusive.  A further subdivision is ‘yugen’, which is the sense of mystery which underpins profound moments.  To define them more accurately is to lose the moment.    Mike Nock has achieved this for me compositionally and through his recording.   The moods are profound invoking deep and somehow unnamable emotions.

I felt this most strongly on the beautifully named and wonderfully crafted ‘The Sibylline Fragrance’ and later while listening to ‘After Satie’.   In the former piece there was an obvious reference to memory and our sense of smell, which is closely aligned with that.  Beyond that was something else, a sense of the history of this music.  Touching briefly on the past but rooted firmly in the now.   When music achieves this it is especially satisfying.   I have seen the trio performing and I have seen Ken Allars with the wonderful Jazzgroove  Mothership Orchestra.  Karl Laskowski was not previously known to me.   All of these musicians must feel pleased with this album.

‘Kindred’ is the more recent album and one with a pared back line up.  Featuring just Mike Nock on piano and drummer Lorenz Pike, this album seems denser in texture and more introspective.  Lorenz Pike is an interesting drummer and well-chosen; he is obviously colourist in tendency and that is the only choice for this music.  Once again Mike Nock has made a virtue out of contrast.  First impressions are often deceptive though and there is a degree of space and subtlety if we listen.  The stories unfolding are at times free and open but there is always an underlying thread.  The titles also fascinate me as they refer (as with the previous album) to a mixture of things past (references to the classical world), nature untamed and various private worlds.  I am a strong believer that improvised music benefits from narratives, not to define, but to augment the journey.

Mike has created subtle narratives out of the whole, which sit in the consciousness like Haiku.  There is something special about these two albums and I am certain that only Mike Nock could tell these particular stories.

What: Mike Nock – ‘Hear & Know’ and ‘Kindred’ albums FWM Records or visit http://www.mikenock.com

Where: You be able to hear Mike Nock in Auckland on Tuesday 23rd July 2013 at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club).

Pretty in Blues – Molly Ringwald @ The Tuning Fork

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A month ago an LA based Jazz Journalist friend emailed me to say that Molly Ringwald was coming to Auckland.  I learned that she would be singing a selection of Jazz Standards from the ‘Great American Songbook’.  He suggested that I should hook up with her arranger and pianist Peter Smith and we duly made contact.   After that I watched for the promotional material to hit the papers and I was not surprised to see that there was a heavy focus on Molly’s former life as an actress.  It is almost a reflex action for the print media to pose the question;  yes she is a Hollywood celebrity and we loved her in this and that role,but can she sing?  I determined from that point on that I would focus solely on the music and leave the Hollywood trivia to the experts.

There are a number of things that can make or break a vocal artist and foremost among these is their ability to connect emotionally with an audience.  Their choice of material and arrangements and the quality of the supporting musicians is also paramount.   It should not surprise anyone to learn that Molly Ringwald can sing well, because she has been singing all of her life.   First as a child with her Jazz Pianist father Bob Ringwald and later in big Broadway productions.   Being multi-talented is not that unusual in the acting fraternity.   Singing Jazz however is a riskier path and one that is not embarked upon lightly.  It is seldom if ever the road to riches and the audiences are filled with armchair critics.  Especially if the vocalist is a movie star.

Molly can sing beautifully.  She also found ways to connect with her audience by telling a mixture of personal anecdotes and engaging stories about the songs.  The choice of material was also solid, as it mixed the well-known with the lessor known ‘songbook’ standards.  All of the material suited her voice but some especially so.

She opened with Dorothy Fields ‘exactly like you’ but it was the second number that really caught my attention.  It was Hoagy Carmichael’s  ‘I get along without you very well’.  I pride myself on knowing the stories behind standards, but this ‘songbook’ story as told by Molly was quite new to me.  Evidently a woman in the audience had thrust a poem into Hoagy’s hand after a concert.  He forgot about the poem and then rediscovered it months later.  After reading the poem he felt that he had to record a version and so he wrote music for it.  The problem that then presented itself was how to find this unknown lyricist.  That’s where broadcaster Walter Winchell came in.  The woman was eventually located and it turned out that the poem was not about a relationship that had gone sour, but about dealing with loss after her husband died.  After this poignant story the song took on a new life for me and Molly managed to convey that well.

Next up was ‘They Say Its Spring’ (Marty Clark/Bob Haymes).  Blossom Dearie absolutely owned this song and while this version was not a slavish copy of Blossom’s , it clearly alluded to that version.   I loved it.  As the sets unfolded we heard; ‘My Old Flame’ (Johnson/Coslow), Don’t Explain (Billie Holliday), ‘Mean to Me’ (Fats Waller), ‘I’ll Take Romance’ (Rogers/Hart) , ‘It Never Entered My Mind’ (Rogers/Hart), ‘If I were a Bell’ (Frank Loessor), ‘The Very Thought of You’ (Ray Noble), ‘Just You Just Me’ (Greer/Klages), and ‘Ballad of The Sad Young Men’ (Landesman/Wolf).  Not from the songbook was a carefully arranged version of ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ (Simple Minds)

I like many versions of ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men’, but Anita O’Day, Roberta Flack, and Keith Jarrett’s versions are particularly fine.  Molly Ringwald’s version compares very favourably with these.  This is not a torch song but a world-weary reflection on the emptiness that consumed the lives of many young men after the war (like ‘Lush Life’ in sentiment).  Delivering such a powerful song to an audience expecting a lighter fare requires courage and skill and Molly nailed it.

Behind these songs were some very clever arrangements and with charts written specifically for the album and tour.  These are the work of the respected LA pianist/arranger Peter Smith.   Peter has worked with Molly for some time and so he understood exactly what is required.   He is a talented pianist with great chops but he followed the most basic rule of all.  An accompanist must never get in the way of the singer.  It is matter of utilising just the right voicings and the chord placement must accent the singer’s performance not dominate it.  Whether comping or taking a brief solo Peter was always tasteful.   Not every accompanying pianist knows how to perform their duties so skilfully.  The next night I invited Peter to a newly opened Jazz venue and he sat in with local musicians.   In this situation he was able to let loose and he did, keyboards not withstanding.

Two well-known Auckland musicians completed the rhythm section for the Auckland leg of the tour; Tom Dennison (bass) and Frank Gibson Jr (drums).  Tom has worked with many international artists and his fulsome rich tone and perfect base lines added enormous value to the performance.  He often works with vocalists.  Frank is also very experienced at working with offshore visitors and like Tom he has worked with many vocalists over the years.   His brush work on this night was especially fine as it whispered and propelled in equal turns.  Together they made for a good swinging lineup.

For just a moment I had a window into that glamorous world long past where the likes of June Christy mesmerised audiences.   And yes Molly Ringwald is still stunningly beautiful.   The 16-year-old Molly with the red hair and the alluring smile still shines through her more mature self.  Her stage presence won’t hurt her Jazz career a bit, but it is her ability to keep singing at this level that will keep her recording and us listening.

What: ‘Except Sometimes’ by Molly Ringwald

Where: ‘The Tuning Fork’, Vector Arena Auckland 13th June 2013

‘The Grid’ off the grid at the CJC

Tim Jago

Tim Jago

This band shakes all conceptions in the known musical universe and they do it by pillaging pieces of reality and cunningly re-assembling them into new and abstract forms. They are as brilliant as they are disarming. Getting under your skin with outrageous banter and constantly evolving story lines. Perhaps this is the future, laughing back at us, as we live in our bubbles of musical complacency?

It’s a little hard to define ‘The Grid’ by using existing musical terminology, so I will do so by drawing upon disparate references. If you were to add a pinch of Marc Ribot, Dvorak, R2D2, Kraftwork, Radiohead, Andre 3000, Willie Nelson and John Zorn into a crucible, you might create something approximating this band. In spite of the bands modernity, they have embarked upon a musical odyssey of classical proportions. Like Odysseus they’re building strange narratives as they navigate Siren’s and Cyclopes. Ever drifting into uncharted waters.

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The first number up was ‘Commodore 64’ from their first album. Since its inception this story has evolved into a saga (see video clip). The setting is somewhere in the future at a time when humans are replaced by robotic machines. The cyber children of these evolving machines have become bored with life and in order to alleviate that boredom they start copying human pop culture. A hipster culture develops and the young male machines start attending nightclubs in order to pick up cool hipster machine chicks. The goal is locating their ideal, a female robot dressed as a ‘Commodore 64’. I don’t think that Phillip K Dick could have bettered that storyline and the music is machine referencing, freaked out cyber nostalgia.

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Some other outrageous story-lines were as follows: Ben Vanderwal; “Don’t you just hate it when people make pretentious statements like – If Bach were alive today he would be an improviser” or “If Charlie Parker were alive today he would be in a ‘metal’ band“. He proceeded to say how distasteful and silly this sort statement was and then with a straight face announced his next tune as Dvorak’s third Symphony, the scherzo movement. Pausing before launching into their digitally enhanced heavy-metal tinged phantasy he added, “Of course if Dvorak were alive today he would be playing in this band”. Another tune intro was; “I am proud to relate that UNESCO has just voted this the tune most likely to bring about world peace”. They also told us that they would be playing a number from Ellington’s occult period ‘Satan’s doll’. It took a minute to sink in but when we heard the opening chords of Satin Doll we fell about laughing.

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There is much more to this band than outrageous humour, there is also outrageous music. They can slip between Willie Nelson and thrash-punk hardcore in ways that defy logic and in spite of the yawning stylistic chasms it all makes perfect sense at the time. It is later when the enormity of what you have just witnessed sinks in and you find yourself sitting in a confused state on the edge of your bed that you mutter WTF.

There is electronic wizardry aplenty at their disposal but that is not what stays with you. It is their musicality, their ability to connect and their cleverness. This band really can play and they impart strangely apposite history lessons as they go. The music can also turn on a dime, moving from the outer reaches of sanity to a gentle jazz ballad played over clever loops. I am absolutely certain that this sub genre of guitar trio will soon become more mainstream. Marc Ribot (Ceramic Dog) and Australia’s Song FWAA tread similar paths.

This is intelligent music and it requires mastery of the instruments plus mastery of a bewildering array of pedals, rattly things and clips. Making drums imitate machines or making guitars imitate an angel or a banshee is not a job for amateurs. All three band members are highly regarded on the world scene where they have gathered a multitude of accolades, awards and scholarships. Individually they have accompanied the cream of American artists such as Terrance Blanchard, Chris Potter, Chic Corea, Victor Wooten, Joe Lovano and others.

The Grid is primarily known as a Perth Band, but the USA could also claim them. In reality the band members now live in three cities and two countries. Ben Vanderwal (drums) is originally from Perth and so is Dane Alderson (electric bass) but Tim Jago (guitar) is from the USA where he lives and works at present. He has recently been working on a doctorate and teaching in Miami. Ben Vanderwal (who told the stories at the CJC) regularly plays with top US musicians and our own Frank Gibson Jr is credited as being his original teacher. Dane Alderson is the son of a jazz drummer and the winner of various prestigious awards. He plays an Aryel 5 string bass and like Tim Jago conjures up a world of wonderful sounds. My final comment on The Grid is; I hope that they comeback….soon.

Both of these clips are from earlier gigs – the stories and the instruments have evolved since then. The music is great as always.

Where: The CJC Creative Jazz Club 12th June 2013

What: The Grid

Who: Tim Jago, Ben Vanderwal, Dane Alderson

Chelsea Prastiti band @ CJC

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Chelsea has only just graduated from the Auckland University Jazz School but she is already somewhat of a veteran performer about town.  I often spot her name in gig notifications and I have seen her in the role of leader at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) at least three times.   Chelsea is popular, original and able to assemble good lineups.

I have avoided using the correct descriptor for her most recent band after Chelsea ran into an unexpected problem with the name. The band is actually called the Chelsea Prastiti sextet, but Facebook abbreviated it to read; Chelsea Prastiti Sex…….   As she later bantered with the audience, “If your here for that go home”.  There is a sense of easy-going effervescence that permeates all Chelsea’s gigs and audiences quickly warm to her.  It is a credit to her that this is so, because her specialty is wordless singing (or a mix of wordless singing and lyrics).   Thus following in the not so well-worn path of Eddie Jefferson, Norma Winstone and others.  This adventurous exploration of vocal sounds is not all that she does, but it is a hallmark of her repertoire.

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Her style of singing moves the focus to the timbre of the human voice.  Using it as another instrument, adding colour, tight unison lines and performing solos much like a guitar or horn would do.   Like other young singers Chelsea often includes numbers from the likes of Sera Serpa, Gretchen Parlato or Esperanza Spalding.   At this last gig those influences were felt in different way, more as reference points.  Most of the material (if not all of it) was Chelsea’s own.  Her composition skills are developing fast as she reveals her own musical stories.  Modern in sound, touching on the history of Jazz singing, but above all communicating the intensely personal.

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As with previous gigs she has drawn upon musicians from her own generation.  Friends from the Auckland University Jazz School and especially those she had been most closely associated with.  Matt Steele (piano),  Callum Passells (alto), Liz Stokes (trumpet & flugal), Eamon Edmunson-Wells (bass).  Newer to the line up was drummer Tristan Deck – this was his first appearance at the CJC and on the basis of his performance this night I’m sure we will see him more often.  Liz Stokes, Matt Steele and Callum Passells were all in good form, each delivering some great audience pleasing solos.  It was also good to see Eamon Edmunson-Wells, who is a bass player we don’t see often enough.  As friends they feed off each others energies and the familiarity works well for them.  The ultimate test will come when they plunge in at the deep end beside highly experienced ultra challenging musicians.

It was particularly nice to hear Chelsea’s composition ‘Bells’ performed once again.   The interwoven melodic lines and the lovely harmonies are deeply compelling.  I like her compositions and the CJC crowd certainly shared that view.

What: Chelsea Prastiti sextet

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 5th June 2013

Who: Chelsea Prastiti (vocals) (leader) (compositions), Matt Steele (piano), Eamon Edmunson-Wells (bass), Tristan Deck (drums), Elizabeth Stokes (trumpet), Callum Passells (alto saxophone).

Sean Wayland & David Berkman @ CJC Winter International Series

Sean Wayland

Sean Wayland

We don’t get many offshore Jazz pianists visiting New Zealand, but we have seen quite a few over recent weeks. This particular gig comes hot on the heals of hearing Sean Wayland appearing as featured guest artist with the marvellous Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra. Sean had impressed me at the JMO gig and so I really looked forward to hearing him play at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club).

Before he had played a note Sean Wayland won us over with his easy-going banter. Especially when he thanked us for Mike Nock and mentioned band mate Matt Penman. These are two of Auckland’s best-loved sons and I suspect that Kiwi’s, like Canadians, enjoy our worth acknowledged by the big country next door. This generous acknowledgement by a respected New York based (Aussie born) pianist reveals an interesting truth about Australasian Jazz.

There may be a struggle to meet the financial realities, deal with lack of good pianos and the paucity of gigs, but the two scenes continually produce world-class Jazz musicians. The Scenes are in fact so intermingled that it is often hard to know who is an Aussie and who is a New Zealander. Steve Barry and Mike Nock illustrate this perfectly as they live and work in Australia. Roger Manins lives in New Zealand but gigs across the Tasman every other week.

In spite of the difficulties there is no lack of great music coming out of Australasia and the main problem is that of distribution. An upside of this changing business model is that bands travel more. For the keen Jazz fan live music is once again king. We don’t have to wait for a multi-national recording label to tell us what we should or shouldn’t like, we can explore ‘You Tube’ or ‘Bandcamp’ and hear from the artists directly.

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Sean Wayland is a hugely respected figure on the Australian scene and in New Zealand as well. He is a very modern pianist, as he moves in circles where new approaches are constantly being explored and new sounds developed. After listening to his compositions I was not in the least surprised to find him supported by the likes of Matt Penman, Jochen Rueckert, Will Vinsen, and James Muller. This is essentially the Rosenwinkel generation. While he speaks that language fluently he is unmistakably an individual stylist. No one sounds quite like Sean.

Sean’s tunes are very melodic. Often unfolding over a simple bass line as with ‘eenan’ off his ‘Lurline’ album. What sounds catchy and accessible can actually be quite complex as his approach to rhythm gives the tunes that unique feel. This is tension and release at its sophisticated best. I have put up a version of ‘eenan’ as a ‘You Tube’ clip which unfolds in subtle and beguiling ways. So beguiling in fact that I dreamed the tune two nights in row. Such powerful hooks are not accidental but the result of careful craftsmanship. There is a strong sense of pulse or swing to his tunes, but approached from a different perspective to that of the more traditional pianist.

This intergenerational shift is one that I hear more often as the changing of the guard occurs. Other tunes played to great effect were his, ‘Trane plus Molly equals countdown” and the solo piece ‘Little Bay’. Both of those tunes are found on the ‘Expensive Habit’ album. ‘Trane plus Molly equals countdown’ hints at McCoy Tyner, but you quickly realise that the voicings have very modern in feel. I can however certainly imagine Kurt Rosenwinkel doing the tune. It is an extraordinary composition where the left hand continuously punctuates the flow with oblique accents. I was left wanting more than the single set and I certainly hope that we get to see Sean again on his next trip back to Australia.

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Accompanying Sean were Cameron MacArthur (bass) and Jason Orme (drums). Both accomplished musicians who quickly slotted into the challenges of supporting a world-class and highly inventive pianist.

The next artist up was David Berkman. He has been to New Zealand before and anyone who saw him last time would have jumped at the opportunity of seeing this top flight New York Pianist in action. There is a fluidity to his playing and above all an impeccable sense of timing. This hard-driving post bop fluidity and the big bluesy chords is what most characterises his work.

The Kiwi members of the quartet were Roger Manins (tenor), Olivier Holland (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums). Together they formed a powerhouse of inventiveness and Roger in particular seemed to benefit from this grouping. His solo’s were so incendiary as to cause gasps of surprise and from an audience who are used to such pyrotechnics. While we expect Rogers high wire acts he is always able to surprise us and this night saw him really on fire. David Berkman certainly knows how to amp up the tension and his ability to extol a horn player to reach deeper and deeper is impressive. He worked the room with as much enthusiasm as he would have done in a prime New York club and everyone there appreciated that commitment. This was the kind of gig where you sat back and let the sound wash over you, tapping your feet uncontrollably and yelling enthusiastically between numbers.

David Berkman

David Berkman

David Berkman’s repertoire was a well-balanced mix of his own compositions and some lessor known standards. During the gig he talked about his mentor, the much respected pianist Mulgrew Miller (who sadly passed away that very evening). He has worked with a wide variety of artists such as trumpeters Tom Harrell and Dave Douglas and his contribution to Jazz education is well-known. Having moved to New York some years ago he quickly settled into the routines of gigging, recording and teaching and since then he has been a fixture on the local scene. He travels extensively and is a Palmetto recording artist.

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The two pianists were very different, but both were amazing in their way. In David Berkman we heard the history of the post bop era and in Sean Wayland we glimpsed the future.

What: Sean Wayland and David Berkman Winter International Series.

Who: Sean Wayland (p) (leader) Cameron McArthur (b) Jason Orme (d). – David Berkman (p) (leader), Roger Manins (s), Oli Holland (b), Ron Samsom (d)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 29th May 2013

Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra – CJC Winter International Series 2013

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Travelling with an 18 piece jazz orchestra is an exercise in logistics that would confound military experts. Luckily this herculean task was assigned to Jazz musicians who have no idea about what is possible and impossible. As they have done for the past 10 years the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra (JMO) set out on tour, but this time, as if to tempt the fates, they decided to cross an ocean. The trip across the Tasman was certainly not without mishap, as one of the orchestra members had become ill at the airport and an urgent replacement was required. The first New Zealand concert was to begin in a matter of hours. I am unsure of just how much panic ensued, but the bands Director David Theak was tasked with locating a trumpeter. They required an excellent reader who could play some of the most difficult charts ever devised and with little or no rehearsal time.

It was guest conductor, ‘ringleader’ and composer Darcy James Argue (who is evidently also a magician) who proposed the solution. He quickly conjured up the brilliant New York based trumpet player Nadje Noordhuis who just happened to be attending a wedding in Australia. She had worked with Darcy for many years and was familiar with his work. Nadja changed her plans and flew to join the JMO in Auckland. I can only surmise that various music gods received generous offerings that day. IMG_7516 - Version 2

The ‘Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra‘ is one of the most valuable creative assets that Australia has on offer and since its inception 10 years ago it has picked up many scholarships and prizes. It is regarded as the best Jazz Orchestra in Australia and it has gained a solid international reputation. Because of the respect the orchestra garners it is now able to attract the best soloists, conductors, arrangers and composers. World acclaimed Jazz masters like John Hollenbeck and Maria Schneider are just two examples of guest arrangers invited to work with the JMO. While drawing upon a myriad of inspirational sources from offshore, the orchestra still maintains a strong focus on showcasing the best of Australian Artists. Recent programs have featured the works of Mike Nock and the New York based Australian born pianist Sean Wayland.

Our own Roger Manins plays tenor saxophone for the current JMO tour and he will appear as guest artist with them at the Melbourne Festival (with the incomparable and frequent poll winning Maria Schneider conducting). Roger is a typical self-effacing Kiwi male who seldom talks up his own achievements (I will happily take on that job). This is big news and he is to be congratulated. Better yet fly to Melbourne and enjoy the JMO with Roger and Maria.

The first concert was at the Kenneth Meyers Centre and I watched with interest as the various musicians about town tweeted words like ‘freaking amazing’ and ‘wow’. The main Auckland gig was on the next night at the Auckland Jazz & Blues Club located in the Point Chevalier Returned Services Association. This large rectangular space has acoustics that are often challenging for smaller bands but not so for the sonic blast of an 18 piece orchestra. By the time I turned up the venue was packed. Everyone there looked expectant, understanding that a rare treat was in store.

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The gig was split into two distinct halves with the first set featuring Sean Wayland’s music. I have long heard praise of Sean and to my shame I had not previously checked him out as thoroughly as I should have. He’s a revered figure on the Australian Jazz scene and with good reason. He often plays with the cream of New York musicians and his discography is jaw-droppingly impressive. Sean’s compositions have a particular ebb and flow that works well with an orchestra like this.  For all that, he is a friendly approachable guy and this easygoing manner communicates itself well to an audience. Sean has worked with the JMO before and it is not surprising that they invited him back as guest pianist, composer and arranger. IMG_7503 - Version 2

The second set featured the works of guest conductor Darcy James Argue who like Sean Wayland lives in Brooklyn. He has steadily been amassing tributes over recent years, first for his ‘Infernal Machines’ album and more recently for ‘Brooklyn Babylon’. Darcy James Argue describes himself variously as ringmaster, composer, arranger and head of a ‘Secret Society’. Dan Brown can’t hold candle to this guy, as he tells better stories and navigates the social media like a latter-day Machiavelli.

When Darcy was ushered onto the bandstand he emerged in true Secret Society fashion. Swirling out the shadows and giving the appearance of being 7 feet tall. My only disappointment was that he didn’t have a cape. According to rumours the Secret Society first aired their music in a small punk bar in Brooklyn, violating fire and safety regulations in the process. As with all the best secrets word soon leaked out and as time went by they performed at the Lincoln Centre and many other key venues. It must be troubling for a secret society to become so famous, but that is exactly what has happened. They are five-time winners of the DownBeat Critics Poll, a JJA best-of award, appearing in innumerable best-of-the-year lists, and being nominated for both GRAMMY and JUNO awards. IMG_7515 - Version 2

This is a composer who understands musical alchemy.  Under his pen and baton a new form of magic has emerged. The textures, orchestral voicings and raw energy carry the listener to places unimagined. It feels fresh and exciting, but somehow (and perhaps this is the essence of the magic) the past is still evident in ways that are never hackneyed. Warmth and vibrancy vie with starkness, gentle and raucous coexist. These are the sounds of a big city in the twenty-first century, but a big city constantly examining its roots. It is hard to adequately describe the impact of this, but a careful listener will discern hints of Copeland, Rock music, Thad Jones and even Cage. More importantly they are drawn forever into the strangely accessible but deceptively complex world of Darcy James Argue and his co-conspirators.

Darcy James Argue has woven us a convincing narrative and his multi media smarts are an integral part of this journey. His websites lead listeners inexorably to the music in pied piper fashion, where they are held fast. He is positioned exactly where he should be, at the cutting edge of new orchestral Jazz.

I sat down with Sean Wayland after to gig and watched with interest as he ordered a schooner. “We don’t have those in New Zealand love” said the barmaid.”What do you call a big glass of beer then?” asked Sean. “A glass” she said. Aussies abbreviate everything (a barbecue is a ‘barbi’ and Melbourne is ‘Melbs’) but this is the only time that I have seen an Australian out-abbreviated by a Kiwi. Sean is an easy guy to talk to and from him I gained a number of interesting insights into the performance. “Was Darcy’s material difficult to play”, I asked him. “Yes” he said, “Almost impossible. To do it real justice it needs to be played a lot and then memorised”. Sean’s piano parts sounded just fine to my ears, he is after all well-known for his work with unique harmony and rhythm.

Where: Point Chevalier RSA, Auckland New Zealand – brought to you by the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), The Auckland Jazz and Blues Club and Pete McGregor Entertainment on the 28th May 2013

Who: The Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra with Sean Wayland and Darcy James Argue

The Dilworths@CJC Winter International Series

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When the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) posted information about their Winter International Series, the first group up was the ‘Dilworths’.   I quickly scanned the information and zeroed in on the two Kiwi band members.  Not just because they are Kiwi’s but because they are superb musicians and well known to me.  The Dilworths current Pianist Steve Barry is an expat Aucklander, as is bass player Tom Botting.   Both had established solid reputations for themselves before leaving this city and both have since built new ones in Sydney.  On that basis alone locals knew that this was the sort of gig that you brave a rainy night for.   Steve Barry in particular has strong audience pulling power in Auckland and many are aware that he has just won the prestigious Bell Award.

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Sydney-sider Eamon Dilworth was relatively unknown to me prior to the Dilworths tour, but it is not a name that I will forget in a hurry.  His band is something else.  Eamon plays a formidable trumpet and he has long been recognised as a musician with much of interest to communicate.  He is a Bell award nominee and the recipient of various scholarships which have led to him traveling overseas and studying in Italy.  He has performed in Romania, Austria, Italy and England and his compositions reflect some of the influences that he has soaked up on those journeys.  While we have some terrific trumpeters around New Zealand we can not match the breadth and depth of the Australians.  Having a trumpeter of this calibre visiting is a rare treat.

Leaders need to exert a strong sense of influence but at the same time they need to know when to stand back and let things happen organically.  The Dilworths appear to have the settings just right.  The camaraderie and the consequent collective output is what works so well for them.  This is at least the second line up for the band and the mix is perfect.  The observant will have noticed how carefully these guys listen to each other, tossing challenges and giving support in equal measure.   What is also evident is how much fun they are having.  There is nothing more off-putting than being confronted by a grim-faced group of musicians whose only purpose is convincing you just how seriously they take their music.  This band was fun, lively and extraordinary.  We all felt that we had witnessed a great show and more importantly been part of one.   This is the essence of good performance and of good Live Jazz

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Everyone in the band contributed at least one tune to the gig and the set list was fluid.   The band would play a few numbers and then quickly confer on what to play next.  They had a grab bag of compositions to draw upon and although a random selection process was applied, the set lists formed a surprisingly cohesive whole.  Thomas Botting’s ‘Balclutha’ was just great with Tom and Steve working a groove to the marrow while Dave Jackson (alto sax), Paul Derricott (drums) and Eamon Dilworth (trumpet) created delicious mayhem.  Tom has a following in New Zealand and deservedly so.  IMG_7391 - Version 2

Steve Barry’s pianistic and compositional skills are greatly admired in New Zealand and anyone who has purchased his album ‘Steve Barry‘ (Jazzgroove) will understand why.  Last Wednesday we saw yet another facet to his playing.  Not as leader or accompanist but as ‘A’-grade ensemble member.  As with all of this line up he added maximum value without overcrowding his band mates.  Paul Derricott also contributed a great composition and his album ‘Big Sea-Arrow’ (Jazzgroove) is really worth purchasing.  I have hardly had it off my Hi Fi since picking up a copy.  These are all bands to track down and see again and again.  Altoist Dave Jackson is a great soloist, with a lyricism that sets him apart.  There is also something compelling about his tone production (quite like John Surmon’s alto sound).  He and Eamon often crouch on the floor when others are soloing.  I like this as it signals the ebb and flow of performance; as if choreographed.  I love musicians who move and dance and these guys executed their dance moves perfectly.

The influences were many and varied and while you could hear flashes of Eick, Stanko, Douglas and many others, the band still sounded very Australasian.  I have come to value this local sound and I miss it when I travel.   There is an honesty that comes from living so far from the so-called mainstream Jazz world.  Jazz is now finding a universal voice and New Zealand and Australia are feeding into that just as the Europeans have done for some years.  Good music has no borders.  While comparisons are often redundant I do have one to make.  It came to me while I was listening to the Dilworths EP.  They have captured a vibe very close to that of the 65 Miles Quintet.  In short they had a controlled looseness that can only arise when a band intuitively knows exactly where they need to be minute by minute.   ‘If I were a Bell’ was the one standard of the night, with the melody barely expressed before they were paring it back to the bone.  Using the changes as occasional touchstones, working with space, colour and texture as if they were commodities not to be squandered.    IMG_7445 - Version 2

Most of the tunes were fast paced but we did have one or two ballads to round them out.  The last set finished with a tune by Eamon.   The musicians put their instruments aside and chanted and we were instantly mesmerised.  While it had some of the feel of an ancient Peyote chant it was subtler than Jim Peppers Witchi-Tai-To.   We loved it and many of us are still talking about it a week later.  The perfect out chorus to a perfect evening.

What: The Dilworths (Australia)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Winter International Series – 1885 building basement, Auckland, New Zealand.  Wed 22nd June 2013

Purchase Details: Jazzgroove records