Cam Allens Phobos The Scary Moon

Cam Allen (4)Perhaps it’s the anniversary of the moon landings, or perhaps it’s the crazy-arsed nonsense happening down on planet earth, but deep space has been very much on my mind lately.  I have not been alone in this preoccupation as I appear to share this with a group of explorative improvising musicians. I was recently on local radio taking about a favourite topic, ‘space dreams and analogue machines’ and it occurred to me then, that space dreamers have always shaped our other-world view. Frank Hampson (Dan Dare Comics), Gene Rodenbury (Star Trek) and musicians like Eddie Henderson (Sunburst), or Sun Ra (Space is the Place). Humans have always looked to the stars for inspiration but only writers and musicians have the courage to describe what others cannot yet imagine.  Cam Allen (1)

For the second time in a month I attended a space themed gig and this time it was titled Phobos the scary moon’. Phobos circles Mars and it was only discovered in 1877. It is a small moon, but since its discovery it has exerted an outsized influence on the human imagination. The Greek god Phobos is a god of a fear associated with war. The word Phobia comes from this. For those with open ears and a love of adventurous grooves there was only joy to found here. Nothing about Cam Allen’s Phobos gig required the listener to seek Freudian analysis afterwards. This was an enjoyable night and the scariest part came later as I was walking back to the car and heard an off-key wail from a nearby karaoke bar.  Cam Allen (3)

The band – intergalactic warriors all; Cam Allen on saxophones, gongs and percussion, John Bell on vibes and horn, Julien Dyne on drums, Eamon Edmudson-Wells on upright bass and Duncan Cameron on keys. I rate John Bell’s Aldebaran quartet highly and for similar reasons I rate this band. This type of improvised music is still under explored and it is long overdue for more careful examination. It has form but the structure is not beholden to form; it has melody and hooks but not at the expense of mood or texture. The musicians here conveyed real enthusiasm for the project and that enhanced the effect.  Cam Allen

Seeing Dyne in such good form was a special treat for me. Later as I reviewed the clips I realised what a powerhouse he is. His rolling polyrhythmic beats reminiscent of the young Alvin Jones. Polyrhythmic drummers often sound as if they are powered by rocket fuel and Dyne did. Allen deftly played three horns (plus gongs) and his nicely open compositional structure permanently altered the time-space-continuum. The clip that I am posting initially took me back to those wonderfully transporting forays of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Keep these space gigs coming people I am up for more.

The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Rd, 29 August 2018, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club.  I am finishing this post just a few hours before I fly to Scandinavia. I hope to experience some music as I travel and will post occasionally. Otherwise I’ll be posting as normal in November. I know that I missed a few posts but I hope to catch up over Christmas. Keep following live improvised music people, your inner life depends on it.

Aldebaran Quartet @ Wallace Arts Trust

Bell Aldebaran (1)While pop music briefly looked up and saw satellites and Rock music headed for the dark side of the moon, Jazz musicians lifted their vision further, aiming beyond Voyager and reaching for the farthest corners of deep space. Exploring those regions is the beautifully realised Aldebaran Quartet, an ensemble which pleases me greatly. It’s not often that I encounter a band like this and I can’t wait for them to record.  Bell Aldebaran (2)

I first reviewed them in March of this year, hoping that this would not be a one-off project and thankfully it wasn’t. They are fresh, modern and original while conjuring up memories of an era that I am still passionate about. 70’s Modal Jazz – Space Funk, Alice Coltrane, Bobby Hutcherson, Bernie Maupin and Eddie Henderson. This was an era of space dreams and old analogue machines. It stretched the imagination beyond known horizons and in so doing, encapsulated the true ethos of improvised music. Happily, this band is true to the original mission directive; reach beyond fearlessly.Bell Aldebaran

Aldebaran is an Arabic word meaning follower and it refers to the giant orange star Aldebaran which follows the Pleiades Constellation into the night sky; sitting somewhere to the left of Orion’s Belt. It has long exited the human imagination. The Egyptians, Greeks Persians and others were particularly fascinated by its presence as it is the largest entity in the Taurian configuration. It is a mere 65.3 light years away from Earth and 7 billion years old. It is therefore entirely fitting that an improvising unit pays reverent homage to the ‘Watcher of the East’.Bell Aldebaran (3)

We caught a piece of luck when vibist John Bell returned to our shores and that was reinforced by the return of drummer Steve Cournane. It also coincided with the return of the pianist Phil Broadhurst who had been sojourning in Paris for a while. Add in either Eamon Edmundson-Wells or on this gig Cameron McArthur on bass, and you have a winning combination. At the Wallace Arts Trust gig, we heard new compositions by Bell and one each by Broadhurst and Cournane. We also heard the premiere of a new Bell composition ‘Corona’, a suite in four parts. I have posted the last two parts as the entire suite nears 20 minutes in length. It is so beautifully composed that ‘Corona’ could easily be extended even further without ever taxing an audience.

If you get a chance to catch this band, do so. The journey that they will take you on is very worthwhile. This was only their second public performance and judging by their form to date, we can look forward to what follows with happy anticipation. The Aldebaran Quartet on this gig was: John Bell (vibraharp), Phil Broadhurst (piano), Steve Cournane (drums) and Cam McArthur (bass). The gig was held at the Wallace Arts Trust 19 August 2018.

 

Jonathan Besser @ Backbeat Bar

BesserThere is an inescapable charm surrounding any Besser performance and Wednesday’s Zestniks gig at the Backbeat bar was no exception. While his music has many strands feeding it and although it can be hard to categorise, it is never the less rooted in the Jewish musical traditions. Besser is somewhat of an icon in Arts circles and deservedly so. The arc of his work has a momentum that few could emulate. As it alights on various styles or genres it borrows their raiment, and seemingly without compromising what lies at the music’s heart; gathering what is necessary and no more. Over the years he has collaborated with leading conceptual artists, filmmakers, symphony orchestras, electronic adventurers and Jazz musicians. The Zestnics performance reflected much of this fascinating journey.Besser (2)

I am always drawn to performers who leaven their gigs with an appropriate portion of banter and Besser’s comments and asides were delightful. They were delivered with a deadpan expression and consequently were nicely understated. As with music, timing and delivery are everything.  Many of the tunes were from his ‘Gimel Suite’ and a quick investigation of the word leads you to a cornucopia of meanings. It is the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet, it is a letter imbued with special qualities and it this case it is a footing or foundation for composition. This is an ancient to modern music and I suspect that those listening will have conjured their own associations. Because I have recently travelled through eastern Europe, I heard the warp and weft of Polish or Czech street music.   Besser (1)

The other ensemble members came from a variety of disciplines and this was fitting. Caro Manins on vocals with her deep knowledge of ancient Sephardic Ladino music; Nigel Gavin, an adventurous ‘World music’ musician who ignores artificial boundaries; John Bell, a Vibes player from the free to groove or ‘World’ end of town; Eamon Edmundson-Wells on bass, a versatile bass player and also frequently seen in avant-garde settings; Alistair Deverick on drums, navigating those exhilarating rhythms. Lastly were two from the expanded Black Quartet; Peau Halapua on violin and Sophie Buxton on viola – popular classical musicians and sometimes seen with Jazz or ‘World’ ensembles. Besser, of course, was on piano.

Some of the tunes were nostalgic or even mournful, some were brimming with joy – all were enjoyable.  The tunes never strayed too far from the notation, but there were some brief improvised sections which balanced things up nicely. I have posted the last number of the gig and while I am not sure of the title, I know that it brought the house down.

The gig took place on the 4th of July, 2018 at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club.

John Bell; Aldebaran Quartet

Bell (2)I have listened to John Bell over a number of years and I have always marvelled at his inventiveness. Bell (along with Jeff Henderson), is widely acknowledged as the experimental music guy, the free improvisation guy. He is a musician who takes risks as he aims for clear skies; a musician who involves himself in interesting cross-cultural collaborations, a vibraharp player who doubles on brass instruments. He is an artist who you always associate with innovation – consequently, other musicians look up to him. Bell (1)

In spite of his wide-ranging credentials, I had never seen him perform this type of material and I anticipated it keenly. His latest project, the Aldebaran Quartet, dove into the explorations of a specific era. The warm modal music of the late sixties and seventies. A time in Jazz when the behemoth of Rock dominated the airwaves and filled record shelves – eclipsing everything else in view. It is unfortunate that audiences looked away just then because out of that era came a heady brew of fresh ideas. Hidden in plain sight were improvising trailblazers; laying down wonderful music, incorporating new freedoms, and embracing a quasi-secular space age spirituality. This was the era when Bobby Hutcherson and Herbie Hancock took a new direction with ‘Oblique’ – when Chick Corea cut ‘Tones for Jones Bones’; both albums featuring the scandalously underrated drummer (and vibes player) Joe Chambers: an era when Eddie Henderson released ‘Sunburst’, Bernie Maupin ‘The Jewel in the Lotus’, and when Alice Coltrane and Don Pullen broke new ground. And all the while looking toward some distant star system or an inner world; all bringing a new flavour to the improvised music scene. Bell

This was a gig filled with mesmerizing soulfulness, but underneath the shimmering sound lay some very clever compositions and great musicianship; referencing a time when modal music stepped free from the formulaic. An era ripe for further exploration. This was complex music made to sound simple; a visceral music that took you to its heart without the need for pointy-headed insider knowledge.  The track I have posted is a good example, the lessons of eastern and western music, absorbed, expanded and all without a hint of contrivance. Melodic patterns over a crisp undulating drum pulse, piano and bass picking up the pattern, in unison or in response, freeing the vibraharp to explore the possibilities as they opened up space.  The tune in question ‘Atagato’ (Bell) is a wonderful composition. It resonates deeply, the complexity artfully hidden behind simple themes, throwing up a melody line that is merely implied.  The clever musical devices employed were endless but for the listeners, that was not important – it was the immediacy, the resonance which touched us. Bell is a true tintinnabulist and we are lucky to have him home.

When Vibes and piano play together they often take a different tack from that of guitar and piano. Occupying the same tonal range is avoided in the latter case but with piano and vibes, a unison approach is frequently employed. When either piano or vibes are comping the chords can become mirrors – reflecting each other but varying fractionally to add texture; completing each other through the harmonics arising from their different timbres. In this respect and others, the pianist Phil Broadhurst was superb. Again, I am very familiar with his output, but I had never heard him in this context. His solos were in the pocket and his sensitive comping concise, supportive. Bell (3)

Bass player Eamon Edmundson-Wells was just right for this gig.  Like Bell, Edmundson-Wells has a firm foothold in the avant-garde scene. The more I hear him the higher my regard for his musicality. He is an extraordinary young bass player and capable in any given situation. The remaining quartet member was drummer Steve Cournane. From the first few beats, he stamped his authority. His rhythmic feel interesting and a little different from other drummers about town. He lived in South America for some time and it’s really good to see him back on the scene. There is something of the classic Jazz fusion drummer about him but more besides (he sometimes reminds me of Peter Erskine or perhaps Lenny White). Together they form a great unit. I hope that they record this material and perhaps exchange the keyboards for an acoustic piano when they do. These compositions and this unit are far too enjoyable to disappear from earshot.  Bell (4)

John Bell: Aldebaran Quartet – Bell (vibraharp, compositions), Phil Broadhurst (keyboards, compositions), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (upright bass), Steve Cournane (drums). The gig took place at the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Backbeat Bar, K’Road, Auckland March 2018.

Chisholm/Meehan/Dyne/ ‘unwind’ 2018

ChisholmIt was a good way to begin a year of music, a good way to breathe life into two enervating steamy nights. Hayden Chisholm was back in the country and around him formed various duos, trios, and quartets. He performed two gigs in Auckland and the first was at the Audio Foundation in Poynton Lane. The venue has long been an important source of innovative music and each time I descend the stairs to the sub-basement I find interesting changes to the clubs configuration. It really is an excellent venue and perfect for what it offers.  At first glance, the two nights appeared quite different. One free improvised and the other a set of reflective ballads.  In reality, both gigs were reflective, melodic and approachable. The open-hearted humanity and communication skills of the participants made it so.

When Norman Meehan, Paul Dyne, and Hayden Chisholm appeared last year in the UoA Jazz School auditorium, the audience was taken aback by the sheer beauty of the performance. The alto saxophone is heard less often than its fatter sounding big brother the tenor and it is seldom heard like this. There was something about that particular performance that stopped people in their tracks. The beauty of the tone and the way the sound informed the improvisational approach. It’s not as if we had never heard an alto and piano before, but the unusual clarity and the perfect juxtaposition between horn and Meehan’s tasteful minimalism made it special. Unsurprisingly there were good audiences at both of the 2018 Auckland gigs. Chisholm (3)

At the Audio Foundation, there were no charts and only the briefest of interactions between musicians prior to the performance. The sets were mostly duos – one with John Bell on vibraphone, followed by another with experimental vocalist Chelsea Prastiti and lastly Jonathan Crayford on piano. Chisholm also recited prose and played over a drone on his Sruti Box. The final number of the evening was a quartet made up of all four musicians.

Chisholm (6)I have never witnessed a free gig quite like that as the communication was so exquisitely personal. More than musicians finishing each other’s sentences. More than the flow of fresh ideas; there was a sense of musicians revealing something intangible. From out of the fading harmonics and the quiet spaces came that extra something. The quiet revealing something on the edge of consciousness, something we often miss. Arising from – evocative like a Rilke poem – or a haiku. Bell stroked his mallets across the bars or responded with staccato – or soft taps and clicks, Prastiti offered cries and bell-like utterances, framed as wordless questions, Crayford explored resonant possibilities by using extended technique or by mesmerizing with darkly descending chords – opening up a dialogue which was met in kind – sometimes gentle, at other times like a flow of coloured sparks. Chisholm (5)

The Thirsty dog gig on the following night featured the trio of Chisholm, Meehan, and Dyne (adding drummer Julien Dyne in the second half). Late last year the core trio released their album titled ‘Unwind’. Many of the tunes we heard last Wednesday and last year are on the album – plus a few new compositions. The album is released on Rattle Records and is highly recommended. If you like thoughtful, beautiful music with integrity, this is for you. The compositions are all by Meehan and Chisholm (with the exception of an arrangement of Schumann’s  ‘Sei Gegrusst Viel Tausendmal’ (arranged by Chisholm). On Wednesday we also heard a delightful composition by Paul Dyne the Bass player. Adding the younger Dyne in the second half changed the mood and again the contrast between the duo, trio and quartet added to the whole. Julien Dyne is a fine drummer and I wish he appeared more often.Chisholm (7)

I must also comment on Chisholm’s playing over the Srusi Box drones.  I love to hear good musicians playing over a drone and the quieter and multi-harmonic effects of the Srusi Box provided subtle wonders.  Several times while the drone was sounding, Chisholm took the saxophone away from his lips and appeared to blow across the reed from a distance. As he did, a disembodied whistling sound emerged from nowhere – adding to the fading harmonics of the drone.  I have no idea how he did this but it was spellbinding. To a microtonal pioneer, this is probably bread and butter – to an entranced audience it was no less than magic. I hope to put up a clip from one or both gigs later – check back in a few weeks.

The album is available from Rattle Records and the live gigs took place at the Audio Foundation and the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) – Thirsty Dog.

Chisholm/Meehan/Dyne:  The album ‘Unwind’

The live gigs on the 13th/14th February 2018 featured Hayden Chisholm, Norman Meehan, Paul Dyne, Julien Dyne, Jonathan Crayford, John Bell and Chelsea Prastiti.

 

merging streams – deep rivers

MI0002138631

This week my copy of John McLoughlin’s ‘Black Light’ arrived (ARI X 050). A vibrant stream of groove fused with ancient oriental sources. All transformed utterly. Talas sounding like rap, deep groove and the reflective fusing with virtuosic Jazz bravura. In McLoughlin’s hands stylistic purity is a will of the wisp. Every note is fresh; past, present and future rolled into one. I feel the same way about ‘Dream Logic’ by Eivind Aaset and ‘Cartography’ by Arve Henriksen (both on ECM). Superficially the Mcloughlin album is a lot busier than the Aaset or the Henriksen but there are strong threads of commonality. Both draw on deep wells of music, shaping sounds derived from primal and untapped sources in equal parts.

All musical styles originate from another place. If music stands still it risks becoming a museum piece and whether it’s Mozart, Lennon, Bartok, Ayler or Miles Davis the influences are there. Forward looking musicians comprehend this instinctively and explore the vastness of sonic possibilities; knowing that musical innovation comes from open-minded exploration. Innovation never emerges from stasis. When people confine an improvised music like Jazz to a particular style or era they miss the point. Jazz like Latin music or Flamenco is a spicy fusion of rich influences. As older familiar tributaries recede to a trickle, new ones flow; filling the space. It is an immutable law of nature and of improvised music.

In the improvisers hands, nothing should survive unscathed because improvisers are shape shifters. They pirate, parody, transmute, transcend and remake. From older forms come newer forms; sometimes as illusive as silence. This artistic alchemy does not imply a lack of reverence for the past, it is the reverse. Finding new ways of interpreting the world is the highest calling of any artist and no matter what the change the DNA is never lost.

Four years ago happenstance led me to the Nordic improvising minimalists and the fascinating influences that inspired them. There are threads connecting these artists and these run in interesting and often unexpected ways. The ‘Eastern influence’ is an obvious source but there are so many more. Following the 1950’s recordings of Miles and Coltrane either playing over a drone or utilising other scales (like the Phrygian mode), new grooves entered the mainstream Jazz lexicon.

The musicians influenced by Kind of Blue are legion, but the connections are not always obvious. The Byrds, Beatles, Animals, Stones and the Who all made use of modal scales post Kind of Blue. I was surprised to read that U2 claimed that album as a prime influence. Terry Riley is an important figure in the minimalist school and he makes no bones about the effect of Coltrane and Kind of Blue on his thinking. Riley’s ‘In C’ was composed before the term minimalism and his stunning ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’ took improvised minimalism to a new place. In the late 60’s the serialist trumpeter Jon Hassell met Riley and soon after they studied under the Indian master singer Pundit Pran Nath. Their increased awareness of what is now referred to as World Music became an added factor in their musical development. Along with Riley, Hassell experimented with electronics. 

Later both Riley and Hassell worked with Brian Eno and David Sylvian (ECM’s Manfred Eicher was paying attention). Eno credits Hassell with shifting his perspective considerably. Both coming out of experimental traditions and both unafraid of fusing lesser known ‘world’ musics with electronic music. Out of these discussions arose the concept of ‘Fourth World Music’ and ‘Coffee Coloured Music’ (World Music was not a common term at that time). Eno is a major figure in experimental Rock and World Music having collaborated extensively with David Bowie, Roxy Music and others.

The Nordic Improvisers are the most interesting development for Jazz audiences. Perhaps due to the influence of Jon Hassell, an incredibly strong Ambient trumpet tradition has developed in countries like Norway. Arve Henriksen, Nils Petter Molvaer and Matthias Eik. Eik is less associated with the Ambient improvisers, but his soft rich and at times flute-like sound places him in their ambit. The leading Experimental/Jazz/Electronica ambient improvisers are Eivind Aaset (guitars, programming), Jan Bang (live sampling, Beats, programming, bass), Erik Honore (synthesiser, Live field recording, samples), Arve Henriksen (Trumpets, field recording, voice) Lars Danielson (bass), Sidsel Endresen, (voice), Nils Petter Molvaer (trumpet) and Bugge Wesseltoft (piano, keyboards, electronics). Into this mix add a number of leading European, American and especially British Jazz and avant-garde experimenters like David Sylvian (voice, Programming,samples).

New Zealand Jazz has a foot in this camp with the fine work by Alan Brown on ‘Silent Observer’. Also Browns work with Kingsley Melhuish (‘Alargo’). To that I would add the experimental work of the Korean based kiwi improvising musician John Bell. The local offerings are as good as anything on offer elsewhere. We should trust ourselves to listen rather than struggle with genres. Too much time is spent worrying about definitions. This is ambient but it is not elevator music. It is a music of profound subtlety and if you relax into it, the grooves and pulses will take you deep inside. This is profound music that understands space and utilises silence. In Eno’s words, “an emphasis on atmosphere and tone replaces that of rhythm and melody”. This is a music that rewards careful listening and it goes where it wants without being time bound. Above all it engages the senses in new ways – it is utterly filmic in quality. I highly recommend Eivind Aaset’s Dream Logic on ECM as a starting point. I will keep you posted on New Zealand developments.

The Clips: Terry Riley, ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air 1969’ – Arve Henriksen, ‘Recording Angel’ from ‘Dream Logic’ (ECM) – Jan Bang, ‘Passport Control’ from ‘And Poppies from Kandahar’ (Samadhi Music) – ‘Alargo’ live are Alan Brown/Kingsley Melhuish – Gaya Day is by John Bell.

Sources: (Eno interview) The debt I owe to Jon Hassell – The Guardian. The Blue Moment – Richard Williams (Faber & Faber). 

 

 

 

Dreamville @ CJC

 

IMG_2945 - Version 2

The Dreamville gig was aptly named for a number of reasons but not least because there were no defined sets, no breaks between numbers.  Like a dream the gig moved forward under its own internal momentum.  Surreal themes constantly dissolving until exhausted, forms shifting without seeming to.  What made this journey so evanescent, but so compelling, was that certain motifs remained deep in our consciousness throughout; totems of sound embedding themselves.  Like the images in a dreamscape the music stroked the chords of memory; familiar yet ungraspable.  As each new realty claimed the preceding one, you realised that a musical osmosis was at work.  A band filtering its own ideas until only the essence remained.  This was especially evident with the recurring melodic themes.  It was best to let these themes be, to let them wash over you without over analysing.

IMG_2966 - Version 2

For nearly 2 hours we sat transfixed, subsumed by a musical force quite unlike any other.   At times the sounds were primal, even brutal, then as sweet as a summer breeze.  I have put up a clip which encompasses two segments from the gig.  In the clip a theme developed by Henderson on C Melody Saxophone (the instrument and the melodic theme takes us straight back to Ellington, perhaps even further back to Trumbaur who played with Bix Biederbeck).   The C melody Saxophone, a none transposing instrument, is a rare beast and in the right hands it quickly reveals its earthy warm tones.  The vibraphone and guitar lay down simple repeating patterns, while the saxophone weaves its melodic way through the soundscape, expressing a deep soulful longing.  Even here all is not what it seems.  A surreal quality still pervades this section, a sixth sense as you edge towards the chaos that is to follow.  There is a Mingus ensemble like quality at first, then the bass solo unravels the theme, drawing you into a less certain world; you are suddenly in Zorn territory.  IMG_2972 - Version 2e

At this point Henderson moved into the light, his C Melody horn put aside, a throaty baritone in its place.   Tah-tah ta ta, tah-tah ta ta, tah-tah ta ta–taa taa states the baritone and the volume and the intensity was swiftly increased.  The music had turned on a dime and everyone reeled back, momentarily overpowered by the mood shift.  Henderson sensing this, advanced toward the audience honking and squealing, carving up the room, not letting the moment pass.   This was musical theatre at its best and it served the purpose well.  One thing I have learned over the years; avant-garde music is always best experienced live.

IMG_4740 - Version 2There is a rawness and a primal quality to it, a strong sense of performance.  Who would prefer a recording of an Arkestra or an Art Ensemble of Chicago performance over a live show?  This was all jazz and all music decoded, not for the cocktail party.  The next day I was watching the 1956 Jean Bach film ‘Great Day in Harlem’ and there was Roy ‘Little Jazz’ Eldridge squealing out high note after high note on his trumpet.   Again and again he pushed out a flurry of wild free multi-phonic sounds.  Even in the swing era this had great effect.

IMG_2970 - Version 2

I am always impressed by John Bell and he was superb in this quintet.  His approach to vibes is percussive and he avoids clichés.  He leaves plenty of space between his lightening runs and the accents and his improvisations have their own compelling logic.  The guitarist was quite a revelation.  I had not heard Phil Dryson before and he impressed me deeply.  Never once did he overplay (a failing of some guitarists), letting his unmistakable chops serve the collective purpose.   Once again the solid body guitar earned its stripes in an improvised music setting.  It felt like he incorporated a fusion era approach with Marc Ribot’s .  Zorn favours edgy, open-eared guitarists like this; he would love this guy.  IMG_2989 - Version 2

On drums was Chris O’Conner (a favourite drummer of mine).  His kit was highly unusual but perfectly suited to the gig.  At times we heard him as percussionist, extending the possibilities, clicks, bell-like sounds and a multitude of edgy beats from the various toms.  Ethnic polyrhythmic effects arose, especially when Henderson beat an oversized bass drum.   The bass player Eamon Edmundson Wells was great.  He fitted into this setting perfectly and it surprising how quickly he has assimilated the vocabulary of diverse musical styles.  In Cameron McArthur’s absence he has stepped up without equivocation.  Hard work and the Auckland University Jazz program have obviously set him up well.  IMG_2955 - Version 2 (1)

This was a sound super-nova created by dangerous visionaries.  There were no leaders identified in the blurb and the band acted as one entity.  All played to the peak of their ability and with unity of purpose  That said the powerhouse presence of Jeff Henderson and John Bell were quite unmistakable.  I could especially feel Henderson’s guiding hand throughout.  This is the space he occupies musically and he is the titan of this realm.  Although my ears rang for days afterwards I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

What: ‘Dreamville’ – Jeff Henderson (Baritone, C Melody, Alto saxophones), John Bell (Metalophone), Phil Dryson (solidbody guitar), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Chris O’Connor (traps drums, percussion).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand, 24th September 2014.

John Bell – Horn Free @ CJC

IMG_2515 - Version 2

John Bell is an iconoclast, always bringing something new and unexpected to the bandstand.   There is also a rich vein of tongue in cheek humour that runs though his onstage banter.  Like his music, it takes unexpected twists and turns.  That is not to say that his shows lack serious intent as he utilises quality musicians; doing what they do well.   It is perhaps best to describe his gigs as full of Zen humour, the sort that Carla Bley is so adept at.  The slap in the face accompanying a sly tickle of the ribs.  Even Bells instruments are other than the expected.  A metallophone instead of a vibraphone (vibes, sans motor and Leslie unit as played by Gary Burton these days).  A horn in a gig titled Horn Free (and an obscure tenor horn at that).  I was equally unsurprised when I was invited to their live recording date; “Last Modern Jazz Qtet Concert’.  Perfect.

To do justice to his music Bells gigs require quirky and talented musicians.  Good readers, good time keepers, prepared to veer off at a moments notice into uncharted realms.  No genre remains un-pillaged in the source material for John Bells compositions; Korean folk songs, bebop or brass band music.  When he announces a standard it is best to think popular Korean TV program theme, Sonny Sharrock or Sankey Hymn.   Nothing is what it seems in his Kaleidoscopic world of shimmering sweet and suddenly dissonant sounds.   The music is weighed up and re-evaluated long after the event.   It leaves an impression hanging in the air for weeks and because of that it is somehow more satisfying than predicable gigs.  Perhaps it is in the ears of the listener, but to my ear this was brave and satisfying music.  It made me happy.

IMG_2496 - Version 2

Watching an animated vibes player is pure theatre.  They throw themselves into the task more than other instrumentalists.  At times Bell would launch him self forward with apparent fury. His left foot trailing behind him as the energy released.  This wonderful two or four mallet dance was a product of the reduced amplification.  Body, mallet and instrument interacting with intensity.  IMG_2508 - Version 2

The rest of the lineup consisted of guitar, drums and bass.  A mix of veterans and up and coming players.   Neil Watson was on guitar and he is the perfect foil for Bell.   He is at least as iconoclastic as Bell, with wild forays ranging from the joyously punk to fusion bebop.  Watson is a respected musician about town and if he has boundaries they are not immediately obvious.  Stylistically he is often somewhere east of Frissel, Montgomery and Ribot.  He has gradually been adding more slide guitar into his repertoire (and now a pedal steel guitar is part of his bag of tricks).  Watson provided one composition to the gig and while different to Bells compositions it was equally enjoyable.   A well-known musician sitting beside me whispered, “That is in the time signature of Take Five, but it is way further out”.

IMG_2504 - Version 2 (1)

Eamon Edmunson Wells was on bass and Cameron Sangster on traps.   While Bell and Watson often leave the known universe to explore the outer reaches,  Edmunson Wells and Sangster hold the ship intact.  I have heard both often, but never in this context.  I was extremely impressed by their efforts and my respect has deepened for both.  If you do something well in a straight-ahead context that doesn’t necessarily translate into a more avant garde setting.   Musicians like Joey Baron show us just how far you can stretch if you are so minded.   It pleases me to see younger musicians following this braver path.  IMG_2513 - Version 2

The audience numbers were not as good as they could be and that was a pity.  This music is a rare treat and it deserves our attention.  All you need to enjoy music like this is a pair of open ears.  If you listen, really listen, you will soon have a smile on your face.

(an updated audio to clip to be added shortly in this space) 

Who: John Bell (metallophone, tenor horn), Neil Watson (guitars), Eamon Edmunson Wells (bass), Cameron Sangster (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland, New Zealand      www.creativejazzclub.co.nz   

K’Party Spoilers of Utopia Album@Vitamin ‘S’

IMG_6765 - Version 2

I am writing this on International Jazz Day and reflecting on the diversity of improvised music occurring in my city of Auckland, New Zealand.  We have straight ahead Jazz, free improvised music and everything in between.  For me a livable community is better defined by its relationship to the arts than by any other measure.  Having venues like ‘The Wine Cellar’ and the ‘CJC (Creative Jazz Club)’ is at the heart of this relationship, for that is where artistic experimentation and community interactions occur.

IMG_6770 - Version 2

There is a tendency to compartmentalise music and it is the way humans like to view the world.  These subdivisions are sometimes unhelpful but in the end the meanings we invest in the descriptors are largely subjective.  I agree with the premise of semiotician, writer (and experimental Jazz liner notes author) Umberto Ecco.  His viewpoint is that humans feel compelled make endless lists in order to plot their way through a chaotic world.  It is a way of remembering ancient pathways, while embarking upon new and often scary ones.  In the world of improvised music the riskier path is always taken and the charts are abandoned at some point.  This music embraces the chaos and seeks out new patterns and motifs, however fleeting.  Using charts (whether Braxton like or traditional notation) the form is merely the starting point.  In this way both ancient & future are embraced.

IMG_6747 - Version 2

The K’Party Spoilers of Utopia (formerly T’Party Spoilers of Utopia) is a nonet led by vibist, tenor horn player and musical explorer John Bell.   His vision has been the guiding force for this extraordinary grouping of musicians and it is respect for him that spurs them on.  I have known John for less than a year and I find him an immensely likeable and down to earth person.  Beneath that matter of fact exterior lurks a keen mind, teaming with profound musical insights.  I have read and re-read his exegesis on the Albert Ayler legacy and his views on alternative music are well-developed and worthy of examination.   Like all musicians he has many facets to his character.   When I asked him recently how long he had been a musician he casually replied, “quite a long while, but at one point I abandoned music for motorcycle racing”.   “Do you still race motorbikes” I asked incredulously.  “Definitely not he said”.  I wanted to probe him further on this fascinating topic but the conversation turned back to music.   On reflection I cannot think of a better career path for an avant-garde musician than motor cycle racing.  Both are high-wire acts.   I am wondering now if I imagined the whole exchange. Time will tell.  IMG_6744 - Version 2

I’ve been aware of the ‘Spoilers’ for a year or more and have seen them play on a number of occasions.  The collective began as a vehicle to explore Albert Ayler’s legacy and for a while you could hear brassy interpretations of the ‘The Truth Goes Marching In’ or other compositions by Ayler.  There is however no such thing as a cover band of free Jazz offerings and band was always centred around John’s own compositions or his interpretations of Salvation Army and various evangelical hymns.  In more recent times the repertoire has evolved to include compositions by band members.  With John on hand to arrange, contribute his own charts and encourage, the project has finally been shaped into the ‘Spoilers of Utopia’  album.  There are so many good compositions and vignettes in this music that singling out the individual musicians for praise would be a Herculean task.  I can only congratulate them all and hope that there is more to come.

I have seen the band described as the purveyors of ‘apocalyptic’ sounds or ‘tongue in cheek’.  I am not so sure about that, as there is is both structure and chaos in their music.  The familiar sits comfortably with the unruly and the sweet with the sour.  That sounds more like modern life than doom and gloom.   Out of the completely free you will hear snatches of raw beauty and just as quickly the beauty dissolves into dissonance.   I would call that a Zen koan – Life is a deadly serious stupidly happy joke.

There is no crying  declamatory saxophone voice on this album (as there would be with an Ayler recording).   This is a brassy sound closer to the military bands and to the street bands of the church militant.  Any analysis of New Zealand’s colonial history will reveal a proliferation of such bands.  Add in a Moog, squeeze horns and a skittering electric guitar and you have arrived at the Spoilers doorstep, Jazz April 2013.  This is a manifestation of avant-garde New Zealand.

The Wine Cellar (Vitamin ‘S’) is a place for experimental and improvised music and under the watchful eye of out-guru Jeff Henderson it flourishes against all commercial odds.   It is like the CJC located in a basement and in this case, deep in the bowels of Karangahape Road.   Visit the website and call by some night.   The music is can be utterly ‘free’ or follow a more structured pathway.   It is always experimental though and improvisation is at its core.

John Bell left New Zealand for Korea two days after the album release gig, our loss.  He will be sorely missed in New Zealand but the music goes marching on.  We have a lot to hear from his band mates yet and I am already picking up whispers of new projects.

IMG_6796 - Version 2

What: ‘Spoilers of Utopia’ Album release gig.  To purchase a copy visit iii xv or the ‘Spoilers of Utopia‘ FB site

Where: The Wine Cellar – Vitamin ‘S’ St Kevin’s Arcade off K’Road

Who: K’Party Spoilers of Utopia – led by John Bell (vibes, tenor horn, misc sounds), Finn Scholes (trumpet, flugal horn), Ben Zilber (trombone), Don McGlashan (euphonium), Neil Watson (guitar), Owen Melhuish (tuba), Darren Hannah (double bass), Chris O’Connor (drums), Kingsley Melhuish (trumpet, flugal horn, trombone, tuba) + Cameron Allen (Moog), Gerard Crewdson (trombones), Jacob Unuia (pau), L J Unuia (pate), Tua Meti (pati)

This has been a Jazz April gig

Spoilers of Utopia / Ruckus@CJC

The way that music is interpreted by the human brain is understood up to a point, but there are many mysteries remaining. The topic interests neuroscientists, fans and musicians alike. While pattern recognition is one the of the main hooks drawing us deeper into a piece of music, we also become bored if the pattern remains relentlessly familiar. That doesn’t rule out repeated notes or a vamp as the points of variance are incredibly subtle; groove music or John Cage compositions bear this out. Whether subtle or overt, educated Jazz audiences prefer music that challenges, delights, reveals or amazes.

Good Jazz and improvised music does this despite the few fans who slavishly confine themselves to a single era or style. Live gigs will drag you out of your comfort zone and here’s the thing. Music is a language and we learn by hearing the unfamiliar and comparing it with what we know. Learning language is an innate skill possessed by all humans. As we listen to what we are unsure of, our tastes grow proportionally. These days Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Carla Bley and Zorn have a solid foothold in our consciousness; just as Jackson Pollack makes overwhelming sense when seen on a gallery wall. Jazz listeners should always want more than sonic wallpaper.

In keeping with Roger Manins enlightened approach as program director of the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), he had booked two very interesting groups to play on the 17th October 2012. First up was ‘Ruckus’, a quartet that was anything but run of the mill. The second was the out-brass ensemble (+ four), ‘Spoilers of Utopia’. What we got was joyful, challenging and outrageously humorous music. Music that was fiendishly clever without once resorting to introspective navel gazing.

‘Ruckus’ led by David Ward, a fine guitarist who has assimilated a dozen guitar styles and then stepped free of them. He composed the tunes Ruckus played and they were a metaphor for the inventiveness and vibrancy of the New Zealand Jazz scene. The set list was interesting and the group showed real guts in their interpretations. No one cruised through this material and consequently the collective pulse was quickly amped to a point of high intensity. Some of this material was reminiscent of a Fellini soundtrack, while still managing to evoke real-time global references. It was modern in the best possible way while hinting at its musical origins. I like musical surprises and this music surprised me.

Club goers recognised two well-known locals in ‘Ruckus’, Chris O’Connor (d) and John Bell (vibes). I do not recall seeing the bass player Rui Inaba before but this unit really did come together. Chris and John had double duties this night as they were not only in ‘Ruckus’ but in the ‘Spoilers of Utopia’ as well.

Chris is a drummer that I am very familiar with as his multifaceted approach to traps and percussion makes him a favourite on a number of scenes. He is one of the most talented, open and interesting drummers in New Zealand and it is always fascinating to watch how other drummers flock to hear him. Chris never rushes to fill any void as he understands how complete an implied or missed beat is. He has such a well honed sense of time that he can push at the fabric of reason without losing momentum . He also knows how to remain relaxed at the kit and how to say more with less. The fact that he is one of the nicest cats on the music scene is an added bonus.

John Bell is an extraordinary vibes player and he generally favours the free over the straight ahead. In Ruckus he showed that he is comfortable moving between both worlds. He can swing like ‘Hamp’ then merge that groove seamlessly into an irregular pulse. The one thing that stands out however is his musical courage. John shows an integrity that few vibists do. While a lovely ringing vibrato is what we most often associate with the vibes (early Gary Burton or Bags), the instrument is capable of more besides. He is recapturing the history of the vibraphone while showing us a possible future path. The vibraphone is a percussion instrument and that can easily be forgotten.

The Spoilers of Utopia (also ‘Tparty Spoilers of Utopia’) are a brass heavy ensemble and they are marching resolutely into new territory. While the charts are initially familiar they are never quite what you think. The genius of this music is its kaleidoscopic quality, as it reflects a thousand fractured images while somehow keeping the whole intact. We feel that we can almost grasp the essence; only to find the familiar deconstructed. A pack of travelling Jesters has skilfully woven a new cloth from the old and what was once orderly descends into a pleasant chaos. We follow the twists and turns and just as we fear we are lost…. a disciplined brass band marches out of the haze. This is a new take on tension and release and it really works for me.

The ‘Spoilers of Utopia’ are usually a nonet and as anyone who knows me will verify, I just love a nonet. They are big enough to create to create the illusion of a larger unit but small enough to leave a sense of airiness. To balance out the five brass instruments there was Vibraphonist (John Bell), guitarist (Neil Watson), bass player(Darren Hannah) and drummer (Chris O’Connor). The Brass section were Kingsley Melhuish, Ben Ziber, Finn Scholes, Owen Melhuish, (Don McGlashan absent that night).

I know Finn Scholes having been wowed by his facility on the trumpet (or flugal horn) before. Neil Watson is also a familiar figure at the CJC and I noted how well his solid-body guitar sound fitted the brass dominant ensemble. I liked his contributions enormously and knowing his quirky offbeat take on life and music, it must have been a no-brainer to include him in the mix. There was also a degree of unison playing and with the unusual instrumental configurations, the timbre of the instruments merged to create a richer sound. George Shearing and Tristano grasped this long ago. Having Piano, vibes and/or guitar playing unison lines changed the sound. Putting vibes and guitar with brass was to produce a wonderful contrast. As the ensemble moved from order to chaos and back again I could feel the guiding spirit of John Bell at work: the demented dance instructor shimmering in darkness.

The track that I have selected from the ‘Spoilers of Utopia’ set is so good that I have watched it over and over. The tune is a hymn beloved of the Salvation Army bands, ‘We’re Marching to Zion’ (Sankey). Someone decided on the spot that a drum solo should occur in the middle. As the band proceeded the overall effect of this anarchic but strangely reverential wizardry brought us to our feet? The audience showed wild enthusiasm (and if you peered into the darkness and listened carefully, I swear you could hear Sankey laughing).

This comes from where Jazz began; brass marching bands and random instruments merging to form a new and riskier sound.

Thank you to Jen Sol for providing the video material (as I stupidly forgot my camera bag on that night)