This project was bound to happen sometime and it was long overdue. On the night of the bands first gig, the pent-up energy that had long been building found a voice. As they kicked off, the room filled with potent energy and the enthusiasm of the band was met in equal parts by the capacity audience. Steve Sherriff is fondly remembered from Alan Browns Blue Train days and he brought with him an interesting group of musicians. Most of them were compatriates from earlier bands and their familiarity with each other musically paid dividends.
On keyboards, was Alan Brown and this was an obvious and very good choice. Brown has a long history with Sherriff and this was evident as they interacted. On trumpet was the veteran Mike Booth; a musician more than capable of navigating complex ensemble situations and delivering strong solos. Ron Samsom was on drums, another well-matched band member, ever urging the band to ever greater heights as he mixed organic grooves with a hard swing feel. Then there was Neil Watson on pedal steel and fender guitars and Jo Shum on electric and acoustic bass. When you put a group of strong soloists and leaders together there is a degree risk, but these musicians worked in perfect lock-step. As in sync as they were, Sherriff was the dominant presence on stage and no one doubted who the leader was.
Sherriff is a fine saxophonist with a compelling tone on each of his horns. On this gig, he alternated between tenor and soprano (though he sometimes plays alto in orchestral lineups). He has an individual sound and it is especially noticeable on tenor ballads and on tunes where he plays soprano. His other strength lies in his compositions. He and Brown contributed all of the numbers for this gig, but in future, other band members will be contributing also. This was small-ensemble writing of the highest order – tightly focused – melodically and harmonically pleasing. The faster-paced numbers were reminiscent of hard bop – the ballads memorably beautiful. Brown and Sherriff set a high compositional bar.
It was Watson though, who took the most risks and the audience just loved it. At times he appeared to be stress testing his Fender as he bent strings and made the guitar wail. At other times he was the straight-ahead guitarist in Kenny Burrell mode – then on a ballad number, he would gently coax his pedal steel guitar and play with such warmth and subtlety that you sighed with pleasure. It had been a while since I’d seen Jo Shum perform and this was a setting where she shone.
Although the band was only formed recently, they will be ready to record sometime in the near future. The material and the synergy of the band is just too good to squander.
Steve Sherriff (compositions, leader, saxophones), Alan Brown (keyboard, compositions), Mike Booth (trumpet), Neil Watson (pedal steel and Fender guitar), Jo Shum (upright + electric bass), Ron Samsom (drums). The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, Auckland, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, July 25, 2018.
I missed the earlier Jazz gigs at the Backbeat Bar and was pleasantly surprised by the venue. A steep staircase rises directly from the busy pavement, ascending sharply until you find yourself in a pleasant oblong room; bar on one side, soft lighting and a surprisingly generous stage at the far end. This was a temporary venue but a good one. Since losing the atmospheric but sonically challenging Britomart basement, the CJC has become peripatetic. It currently has a number of homes and pleasingly, the audience seems happy to follow. Importantly, this particular venue has good acoustics.
The first of March brought a treat in the form of the Andy Watts Quartet. Watts has worked in London for ten years and this was his first trip back to New Zealand since leaving. He is that rarity, an active New Zealand trumpeter bandleader, a cohort you could count off on the fingers of one hand. Like Mike Booth and Lex French he was schooled here, but left to hone his skills elsewhere before returning. His years of performing in and around London have gifted him an air of confidence, one born out of wide and diverse musical experience.Watts has been busy in London, appearing on numerous albums such as the ‘Afrobeat Collective’ (which he helped form), ‘6 Day Riot’ and ‘Running Club’. This year he recorded an album with his country group Blue Mountain Rockers titled ‘Turn the lights out’. It is not just Jazz guitarists who effectively mine this seam (Trumpeter Mathias Eick’s ‘Midwest’ is a masterpiece of country Jazz invention). Also cut this year was his album ‘Otherwise fine’, tonight’s gig is the local release gig for that London recording.
His New Zealand quartet is largely made up of old friends from his Auckland University days. On guitar was Ben White, with Jo Shum on bass, and Adam Tobeck on drums. Six of the compositions were by Watts and three were White’s. These were juxtaposed between some seldom heard but great compositions by Roy Hargrove and Jerome Sabbagh. Rounding off each set was a standard. Many of Watts compositions are muscular, and at times you can detect his influences. Dave Douglas, Wheeler and others like Hargrove are clearly in his pantheon. I particularly liked ‘Smoke and mirrors’ and ‘Mr Cornelius’ by Watts, also ‘The Moment’ by White. The bands opening number in the second set was Hargrove’s lovely ‘Strasbourg/St Denis’ and it was a delight. To hear such a fine composition performed so well was worth the entry price alone. In this piece especially, the contrast between trumpet and horn was perfectly balanced.
White has a warm sound with lots of bottom to it. This contrasts nicely with Watts horns, who can swoop with heart stopping daring off the upper register or reach for impossible notes al la Wheeler. We see the reliable Tobeck often but less so Shum. It was good to see both on this bandstand. I am still having problems with uploading to You Tube but I have clips. I will post the missing clips when it is sorted. In the meantime I have loaded an earlier clip of the Andy Watts London Quartet.
Every time an article appeared in the late twentieth century proclaiming the death of Modernism, another appeared shortly after; pointing out, rightly, that profound echoes of the movement will linger and intrigue a while yet. Perhaps because of when I was born, (immediately after the second war), this movement fascinates me and will until my last breath. It was a profound moment in the human journey when the hegemony of historical artistic values were challenged, discarded. Schoenberg, Coltrane, Brubeck, Riley, Colman, Matisse, Picasso, Miro. Pollock, Rothko, Eliot, Pound, Kerouac, and even Freud are defined by this impulse to move free from the received wisdom of history.
Those names and others were significant among the game-changing modernists. The paradox is, that once defined, accepted, the movement they arose from became part of conventional history. The energies arising from the Modernist impulse were profound and so powerful that counter-revolutions are endlessly trying to reset the clock – to recapture late 19th century values, a time when empires and financially powerful men determined our world view (the Trump, Brexit phenomena).Stephen Small is a wonderful pianist but he is much more than that. He conjures up musical projects that catch people unawares; original projects, affording us a viewpoint on life and art that we would not experience otherwise. The concept behind the first outing of the Mexico City Blues band was to look at, examine the Jazz of 1957, fusing it with the Beat poems of Jack Kerouac (Kerouac wrote Mexico City Blues in that year – see earlier post). This was in part a re-imagining, but also a fresh look through post millennial eyes. When Stephen Small takes on a project he brings to it an immense musical knowledge, but more importantly an eye for the unusual, for quirky detail (no artist, musician, writer or poet worth their salt can succeed without this). When artists do their job well they show us the world afresh.
Mexico City Blues 2016, unexpectedly took us into the heart of Eastern Bloc Europe during the immediate post-war era. What a marvellous idea and what extraordinary music we heard. By coincidence, just before this gig, I was travelling through the former Eastern Bloc and I gained a strong sense of the wonderful music existing there – a music largely obscured from the anglo-centric view, created in an era of strong disapproval and inside hermetically sealed borders. A small cadre of Poles, East Germans, Czechs, Romanians and Russians listened to Jazz when they could. Forbidden LP’s circulated, Radio America broadcasts were devoured and later on there were a handful of US State Department Goodwill Tours (aka propaganda). Small pointed out something important.
The Jazz that these musicians created, recorded, while referencing the American or Scandinavian music was also very much their own. They hated being told that Jazz was forbidden by the philistine authorities, but they were also suspicious of swallowing the US State Department line. Jazz is and should be by its very nature suspicious of any party line. There is a little Evans, Ellington and Brubeck in their music but what defines these artists is an uncompromising originality. I am a longtime time fan of Polish Jazz, as it is interestingly melodic and distinctive. The most important thing I learned while in Poland was that the ethnic Poles did not rebel against Russia out of any yearning for American capitalism, nor did they despise socialism. They just wanted the jackboots of Russia and Germany off their neck. Nations and art forms are happiest when finding their own way in their own time. Hearing this music is to glimpse the soul of an artistically suppressed people, finding hidden pathways towards the light.
The gig traversed the compositions of four 1950’s to 60’s era Eastern Bloc musicians and paid tribute to the experimental free improvised music of Russia. There was a distinct flavour to all of the pieces. They were lush without over ornamentation, marvellously inventive, moody and original (perhaps tinged with the dark romanticism of Slavonic literature). After hearing these composers, my interest is piqued enough to want to lift this corner of the Iron Curtin further.
The artist featured most was the amazing Krzysztof Komeda, a wonderful composer and interesting pianist whose dark and moody compositions are forever associated with Roman Polanski movies; a match made in heaven. Anyone who follows the Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko will have heard Komeda often (Stanko was in many of the Komeda bands). If you saw Polanski’s ‘Knife in the water’, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ or ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers’ you have absorbed his music without realising it. ‘Astigmatic’ Komeda’s greatest album, is highly regarded to this day. It signals the first significant shift away from American Jazz sensibilities, establishing a new and predominantly European Jazz aesthetic. I once saw Polanski interviewed about his early movies and he spoke passionately about Komeda and his music. The Komeda compositions we heard were the achingly beautiful ‘Ballad for Bernt’ and ‘Crazy Girl’ (both from ‘Knife in the Water’).
First up was a solo piece, ‘Suite for Jazz Orchestra’ by the East German composer Pavel Blatny. Then Bassist Jo Shum joined Small for two Komeda numbers – following that the duo played ‘Gral’ by Ludwig Petrovsky (another East German). The last piece in the first set was a ballad by Murad Kazhlaev (an Azerbaijani). I have not seen Shum perform for some time but she was magical – her touch and instinctive feel for this interesting music adding deep resonance. The second set was free improvised music in the tradition of, and honouring the all but forgotten experimental improvisers of 1960’s Russia. For this set Small was joined by Dave Chechelashvili on modular synthesiser. As Small carved out motifs and themes, developing them and exploring the possibilities, Chechelashvili shaped the sound. Small’s Korg keyboard was split and connected with the modular synth; as patch cords were adjusted and knobs tweaked, we heard a music that you don’t expect from Communist Russia. Evidently and surprisingly, this was tolerated because it was perceived as artistic exploration. It was hard not to think of Glass, Reich or Riley and wonder at this parallel development.
Mexico City Blues: Stephen Small (piano, keyboards, concept), Jo Shum (double bass), Dave Chechelashvili (modular synth). November 2nd 2016, CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel, Auckland.
If you patrol the margins of the music world you will find inestimable treasures. Beyond the notice of mainstream media and mainstream audiences there is a joyous revolution underway. Not an austere revolution but one peopled by astonishing musicians, colourful characters and sonic explorers. Like a good street protest, it is often bubbling with noise, insistent beats and a multiplicity of messages. Last Wednesdays gig epitomised that. The alternative music scene is often denigrated for its imagined ‘high brow’ complacency or its snobbish rigidity. In this regard the Jazz police and lazy uninformed commentators have done improvised music a grave disservice. Improvised music has been with us since the beginnings of art and the whole point of it is to shift the focus away from the mundane or the obvious. The appropriation and assimilation of traditional forms is only a staring point. Sandhya Sanjana and her gifted ensemble took the shamans path here; conjuring shapes and colours from the ether, re-harmonising, daring us to look at the familiar and the exotic from an entirely different vantage point. This night cut right to the heart of improvised music. Different worlds merged and they did so without compromising the integrity of the traditions they came from.
This was World/Jazz singer Sandhya Sanjana’s night but we have Auckland’s Ben Fernandez to thank for organising the gig. I had not heard Fernandez play before this, but had long been aware of his reputation as a gifted, successful and multifaceted pianist. Some months ago he invited me to his ‘Raag time’ fusion gig, but sadly I was unable to attend as I was heading out-of-town. Later he messaged me to say that he would teaming up with Ms Sanjana in November. Gigs like this are irresistible to me as I am enthusiastic about all of the great improvised music traditions. The merging of these traditions has risks, but done well it’s marvellous. The successful assimilation of middle eastern rhythms and the idioms into Jazz has long been achieved in Europe. Fusions of traditional Indian music and Jazz are now emerging across the globe and those with an open mind and the right ears are the happy beneficiaries.
The band members were; Sandhya Sanjana (vocals, leader), Ben Fernandez (piano), Jim Langabeer (flute, reeds), Manjit Singh (tabla & vocals), Jo Shum (bass), Jason Orme (traps drums). Anyone familiar with the Auckland Jazz scene and the Indian music scenes will know what a great lineup this is.
Sandhya Sanjana is from Bombay, but based in Holland these days (Ben Fernandez is a Kiwi but he also hails from Bombay). She has performed with the greats in the World/Jazz field like Alice Coltrane and Trilok Gurtu. She has an easy confidence about her that informs her performance and under her guidance a seamless fusion of styles occurs. With Fernandez you get another strong influence as he imparts a distinctly Latin feel. This classical and Jazz trained musician has chops to burn. Out of this melange of rich influences a vibrant new music emerges. It is compelling and exciting to hear. There is a constant visual and sonic interplay between singer, tabla, traps drums, piano, bass and reeds (winds). The shifting rhythms creating intricate cycles that pulse and swing.
Manjit Singh, originally from the Punjab is another Auckland resident and he is an acknowledged master of the Tabla and of Indian music. I am often reminded of what a rich and diverse drum landscape we have in Auckland. A world that I am still coming to grips with. This man is a major talent and it is our good fortune that he is making forays into the Jazz/fusion music scene. On traps was the veteran drummer Jason Orme and he was well-chosen. The gig required a drummer who could play quietly but strongly and one who had the subtlety to interact with Singh. On bass was Jo Shum who has not played at the CJC for some time. She is an aware bass player and acquitted herself well. Lastly was the reeds and winds player Jim Langabeer. Langabeer is well-respected on the New Zealand scene and is one of a select group of doubling reeds musicians who are equally strong on flute (and he swings like a well oiled gate). This gig had an embarrassment of riches and once again Roger Manins gets a big tick for his innovative programming.
In the You Tube clip that I have put up, the breadth of Sanjana’s influences are immediately evident. After a few bars of latin feel on piano we hear a Tala. I know very little about the technical aspects of traditional Indian music but the rhythmic patterns (or Tala) are generally established early on. This can also include a vocalised manifestation of the Tala rhythms. Manjit Singh the Tabla player counted in the Tala and Sanjana responded with Mudras, claps and vocals . The traps drummer and others responded to the patterns and so the piece built upon itself. If done well, cross fertilised music is like water; it will soon find its own level. This did.
Who: Sandhya Sanjana (vocals, compositions, leader), Ben Fernandez (piano, arrangements), Jim Langabeer (winds & reeds), Jo Shum (bass), Manjit Singh (Tabla & vocals), Jason Orme (traps drums).
Jazz Flute is sometimes relegated to a place of lessor importance in the scheme of things and a few say that the instrument lacks the expression of the more ubiquitous reeds. As with all things in Jazz it depends entirely on who is playing the instrument and how they apply themselves to the task. If such naysayers had witnessed Trudy Lile on Wednesday the 10th of October 2012 at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club)they’d have swallowed their words. This was expressive and extremely lively flute playing and no one with half a brain could doubt Lile’s supremacy on the instrument. She is a master of extended flute technique but the effects are always applied tastefully.
As well as being a premier Jazz flutist, Trudy Lile is also a composer and vocalist . These three skills were all evident at the CJC gig as she showcased many of her own compositions. The numbers were engaging and tended toward the melodic (as you would expect of flute compositions).
I have selected one of these compositions as a typical example (see You Tube clip). Her ‘Kingston 787’ has a well-arranged head, which as it develops, becomes the perfect springboard for extended improvisation. With the vague promise of summer in the offing I was in the mood for this type of number. Swinging and soaring like a skylark – a tune that pleased the ear and invited you along for the journey without losing you before the end.
‘Kingston 787’ is a great composition, referring to the famous South Island steam engine of that name. There is ample precedent in Jazz for writing charts about steam trains and two of the most notable examples are Gerry Mulligan’s ‘The Age of Steam’ (who could forget ‘K-9 Pacific) and Oscar Peterson’s memorable ‘Night Train’. Trains and jazz have always been linked as musicians rushed between gigs; writing charts to the clickity-clack.
While there were a few numbers by other people there were seven Trudy Lile originals. First up was a feisty tune named ‘Flute Salad’ (Lile), followed by ‘Winter Wind’ (Parlato), ‘Night Bird’ (Enrico Pieranunzi), ‘Emily’ (Lile), ‘If I Fell’ (Lennon/McCartney), ‘Kingston 787’ (Lile), ‘Hammond Sandwich’ (Lile), ‘The Laughing Song’ (Lile), ‘Smile Like That’ (E.Spaulding), ‘Frodo’s Mojo’ (Lile), ‘Gone By Lunchtime’ (Lile). The choice of lessor known tunes by well-known musicians worked well as a contrast. It offered comparisons and her own compositions stood up well against the likes of Pieranunzi. For ‘If I Fell’ Trudy played piano and sang, accompanied only by a first year student Sam Swindells on guitar.
Her regular band is Mark Baynes (piano), Jo Shum (upright bass) and Jason Orme (drums). This unit has been together for some time and it shows. I have caught Jo and Jason many times at gigs but this was the first time that I had heard Mark. It proved a good introduction to his playing and the musical rapport between he and Trudy worked well. Mark’s touch and voicings are different from the pianists we see regularly at the club and it is encouraging to see such stylistic diversity in our city. Mark is a keen student of Brad Mehldau and this focus has undoubtedly shaped his approach to the instrument.
Jo gets better and better every time I see her as she has the ability to provide a solid cushion beneath the piano and flute – freeing up both as she holds the centre. By contrast her soloing was highly melodic and perhaps it is this which makes her so right for working with Trudy. When her amp failed mid number her loss from the mix was noticeable although the rest of the band played on without faltering.
Jason Orme is the other regular and he and Trudy go back a long way. Jason is a versatile drummer who knows exactly what his job is. For this gig he shared the drum duties with first year student Michael Harray. Michael played drums for one number and percussion for several more. On ‘Kingston 787’ we heard both drums and percussion. They worked extremely well together – I like gigs with a percussionist and a drummer and Michael was superb.
Another student Joel Griffin played alto on one number and a jazz choir joined Trudy on another. None of these students let Trudy down.
There is a significant thing to appreciate about Trudy Lile and that is her role as an enabler. She teaches Jazz studies at the NZSM Massey Campus and is on a perpetual quest to promote, challenge and push her students into playing in situations like this. Sharing your prized gigs with beginning students has its risks but the rewards are far greater. It is only through being tested against more experienced players that they learn.
Trudy gives a lot to the Jazz scene but I’m not sure that it is always acknowledged. When it comes to the academic world such dedication is all too often overlooked. I have pondered this and wonder if old fashioned misogyny is at play.
The leading Jazz flute players in the world are now predominately women (Nicole Mitchell and Jamie Baum just won the Down Beat critics poll). The students understand this issue perfectly as many have voiced it to me. Progression in teaching or on the bandstand must be merit based and gender blind.
The CJC and especially Roger Manins set a very good example in this regard.