A Love Requited~Myele Manzanza

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The Myele Manzanza ‘A Love Requited’ gig opened with a heart-stopping rendition of his tune ‘Ritual’. As the leader’s beats drove out the grey of winter, it left no room for doubt; this was a drummer gig. He moved his body to the music and rained down rhythms and everyone was mesmerised. As drummers move, their feet and hands blur and dance, but few move their upper bodies like Manzanza. This gig was all about sublime motion; kinetic transportation into pulsing parallel worlds. It was very ancient, eternally present, and futuristic. As he bent close to the kit or circled the snare he looked like a hawk circling his prey. This was different drumming and while it was firmly rooted in Jazz, it also mined deeper timeless roots. It also felt intensely personal.

With him on the New Zealand leg of the tour were genius pianist Jonathan Crayford and the powerhouse Wellington bass player Johnny Lawrence. His bandmates needed to be chosen well, because what was on offer was not your usual piano trio music. Everything about the compositions centred around the percussive and was juxtaposed against compelling rhythms; whether soft or loud, piano or bass. Powerful ostinato patterns established, evolving into figures or melodic lines before turning back on themselves. This had the effect of intensifying the vibe and drawing the audience deeper into the soundscape. The drums on the gig were often loud and at times really loud, but when the quieter more reflective passages occurred the intensity remained.  

Manzanza is the son of a Congolese master percussionist and the name Manzanza derives from beat out rhythms. All of that is implicit in his compositions, but it is also a doorway into a bigger story. ‘A Love Requited’ is also about fine composition and superb arranging. Out of that rich rhythmic brew and long evolving history comes an album filled with surprising subtlety. The album is well mixed and the individual players in the ensemble are given ample room to breathe. There are various arrangers credited and all serve the music well. That said, Manzanza arranging Manzanza is what stands out for me.

The album features a medium-sized ensemble with additional players appearing on certain tracks. This band has connections far and wide but it is mainly an Australasian affair. Manzanza and Jake Baxendale are from New Zealand as is ex-pat Mark de Clive-Lowe. The remaining band members, mostly Australian, feature talents such a Matthew Sheens (full personnel list below) and co-producer Ross McHenry. A number of the above musicians are either resident in or regular performers on the USA scene.

If you get a chance, catch the live gigs. More importantly, grab a copy of the album as it is one that you will want to keep on hand for repeat plays. The best option is to visit Bandcamp, where you can order a physical copy or grab an uncompressed download; available in many high-quality formats. In the nineteen fifties Ellington and Strayhorn penned a suite titled Such Sweet Thunder. They were referencing Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer night dream’; the full quotation being, ‘So musical a discord, such sweet thunder’.  Such sweet thunder certainly applies to this album. 

Myele Manzanza Bandcamp

‘A Love Requited’ Auckland: Myele Manzanza (drums, leader), Jonathan Crayford (keys), Johnny Lawrence (bass). CJC Creative Jazz Club, Anthology, K’Road, 10 July 2019

Album: Myele Manzanza, Matthew Sheens, Jake Baxendale, Ben Harrison, James Macauley, Jason McMahon, Adam Page, Django Rowe, Mark de Clive-Lowe, Brenton Foster, Jack Strempel

Jay Rodriguez @ Backbeat Auckland

Jay 2019 (1)Anyone who saw Jay Rodriguez play the last time he was in town will have tripped over themselves to catch him again last week. Rodriguez is a talented and engaging improviser and when he steps onto the bandstand he wins hearts from the get-go. This seemingly innate ability arises from a keen understanding of what will work best with a particular audience. He picks ups on and feeds off the energies in the room. He is also a skilled technician, but he is not there to show off his undoubted chops. His purpose is to involve and to engage at the deepest level; offering musicians and audience alike an unforgettable musical experience.    

These days, dozens of talented musicians pour out of the prestigious Jazz schools and as good as they are, they often have a similar approach and sound. Over time the best of them shake this off, but it takes work and road experience to do so. While Rodriguez attended music school, he also gigged from a young age; cutting his musical teeth on the bandstand and learning his craft at the feet of masters (Tito D’Rivera, Phil Woods and Joe Henderson – playing lead alto with Tito Puente at 15 years of age). Those early days shaped his trajectory and enabled him to move effortlessly across the breath of the Jazz world – and later – traversing the wider music scene (Elvis Costello, Prince, Ribot etc).  You gain the impression that every day on the road added a certain something to his sound. He can channel a raw Texas tenor sound in the same gig as he has people swooning over a ballad.  Once this was a commonplace accomplishment, but as the old road warriors pass, we hear this stylistic breadth less and less.

Here I must offer a disclaimer; I was involved in this Auckland gig. Rodriguez had reached out and generously suggested that we could join forces, adding some spoken word into his show. We had a number of exchanges while he was touring with Marc Ribot (the Songs of Resistance project). Various ideas were canvassed – unlike many improvisers, he is experienced in working with poets as he has associated with many including the late lamented Amiri Baraka. From across the time zones, we explored possible rehearsal times and as is often the case, a quick rehearsal just before the gig was the only possible option. When it came to hiring the band, he made another generous suggestion; he was happy to have some younger and freer spirited musicians on board – in fact, he welcomed that. Crystal Choi and Eamon Edmundson Wells joined Ron Samsom as the core group, with special guests Jonathan Crayford and myself appearing on select numbers. 

Rodriguez is proficient on multi-reed and wind instruments and he frequently travels with most of them. This time he arrived with one flute, a soprano, and a tenor saxophone. When rehearsal time came he unpacked dozens of charts and spread them around clock fashion. My favourite author does this, slowly walking among short stories until an order is fixed. So it was with Rodriguez. We had been pre-warned that what was rehearsed would not necessarily be what was played, as he often changed things around as he read an audience (and often mid-tune by way of signals).

The setlist had a few well-chosen standards and of course, tunes from his critically acclaimed ‘Your Sound’ album.  Although he amended the setlist as the gig progressed and extended numbers, fusing the tunes into a heady new amalgam, the performance had a flow that was preternatural. Working with a musician like this and trusting his instincts to guide you forward is exhilarating. I know that the band enjoyed themselves – the gig became bigger than the individual musicians and that how good gigs should work.    

I have posted a longish clip from the gig, one which demonstrates the energies flowing between the musicians. The clip reminded me of the early Alice Coltrane projects. Deeply spiritual and unafraid to move with the vibe. Choi delighted the audience with her wholehearted engagement, moving from minimalist figures to crystalline arpeggios as the moment demanded. Edmundson Wells, like Choi, often appears on the avant-garde scene and was perfect for the gig.  Samsom, the other experienced hand, offered solid support, creating a cushion and a heartbeat. Last, but not least was Crayford, a generous enabler, a mentor to musicians like Choi. He would normally have appeared as the listed keyboardist, as he and Rodriguez have a deep friendship and they collaborate when they can. This time he was heavily engaged in a project of his own and arrived back in town hours before the gig. He waited out the first set, respecting the established line-up, joining the band with keys for the second. This added a whole new dimension to an already great gig – creating the broader palette that Rodriguez thrives on. The capacity audience reacted to every facet of the gig with enthusiasm and Rodriguez return is eagerly anticipated.

In my case, the overall experience was particularly rewarding – a true learning experience – note to self – let my spoken lines breathe more at the start. When you fit words around live music quick decisions are required, Sometimes you have mere seconds to judge the rhythms of an unfamiliar tune. An opportunity like this is rare and precious and I’m glad I took it.

Jay Rodriguez: (tenor & soprano saxophone, flute), Crystal Choi (piano), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums, percussion), – guests Jonathan Crayford (keys), John Fenton (spoken word) – at ‘Backbeat’, CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 27 February, 2019 – Jef Rodriguez recent album ‘Your Sound’ is available on Amazon, through record stores or go to jayrodriguez.com

Mambo Macoco – Crayford/Haines

Mambo Macoco (2)A lot of great live music happened this year but this gig was a favourite.  It was danceable, visceral and the deeply rhythmic pulse found its way straight to your heart. As the band played the room radiated an infectious joy and the swaying of the audience amplified it. One by one the feet tapped and the hands moved until no one was left unaffected.  Yes, this was music to wash away your cares but underneath that was something of real substance. Latin music that misses its groove is unsatisfying but when it’s done well like this was, it’s simply wonderful. No one in New Zealand could pull this off better than Jonathan Crayford and with co-leader Nathan Haines on board, it was locked down. The final ingredient to this potent tropical brew was master percussionist Miguel Fuentes.

This project has an impressive provenance as it is derived from the Bobby Vidal songbook, a selection arising out of his much-loved New York Latin/Bebop band. In the early nineties Crayford was living in New York and because he was intent on soaking up as many influences as possible he soon came across Bobby Vidal’s regular East Side, St Marks Bar gig. He loved the vibe and desperately wanted to become part of it and he started attending the gigs regularly. Through perseverance and after many knock-backs, he finally got an introduction to Vidal. Before long he was hired. After that, he spent three years with the band, describing the experience as ‘a pure joy’. Mambo Macoco (3)The songbook was a heady fusion of Bebop and Afro-Cuban (or more accurately Afro-Rican as Vidal was from Puerto Rica). When Crayford initially agreed to take the Vidal gig he knew little about Latin music, but a quick phone call to his friend Barney McAll gave him valuable tips. Fast forward to 2018 and it is obvious to anyone who hears him that he absorbed the complexities and rhythms of the music beyond caveat. Although the rhythmic patterns are fixed, for the music to work well it needs something else – a controlled fluidity – the ability to react to the other musicians. Crayford once described it as being a weave which can be tightened and loosened at precise times – without the shape being lost. When you hear the clave patterns skilfully executed and interwoven, the experience is unforgettable.

Co-leader Haines ranks among our best known and most loved musicians. His experience and good taste are always on display and on this gig, he pulled out an extraordinary performance. After his recent surgery and health issues, it would have been excusable for him to hold something back, but Haines is averse to half measures. His primary instrument on this gig was flute (although he did play saxophone as well). Anyone who has followed his career will know that he was in New York around the same time Crayford was and he undoubtedly absorbed gigs similar to this. A subsequent move to London had him performing with a variety of Afro Caribbean musicians. His wonderfully peppery flute playing attests to these tropical influences. Mambo Macoco (4)Many Jazz musicians avoided the flute, believing it to be expressionless, but when Haines blows, it has life, character, and edge. As a horn, it has pride of place in Latin ensembles and Latin lineups are diminished without it. Watching these two feed off each other’s lines or grooves is to attend a masterclass. Many years of collaboration has gifted them an acute situational awareness. An awareness that is now instinctual.

Then there is Miguel Fuentes. This is where the magic becomes supercharged. Fuentes like Crayford and Haines is an acclaimed musician and his background as a percussionist is mind-blowing. While skilled in the numerous percussion styles and on numerous percussion instruments, he played congas, Afro-Cuban style on this gig. He has performed with a large number of important artists (e.g.George Benson and Isaac Hayes) and since moving from New York to New Zealand he has been the first call percussionist.

Beside him on cencerro (cow-bell) was Adån Tijerina, his instrument being the ‘hammer’ – the instrument which holds the centre and it was deployed well.  On upright bass was Mostyn Cole, a versatile and able musician who fits in perfectly whenever he is called upon. At the end of both sets, an electric bass player was called to the bandstand. A young woman named Jacqui Niman from the South Island. The ease with which she hit her groove and dived into this deceptively complex music was impressive.

Both gigs were filled to capacity and due to the size of the audiences, dancing was rendered impossible. As Crayford later pointed out, “I’m sorry that there is no room to dance but do so if you can’. The Mambo Macoco music invites movement and deserves to be danced to. It is rumoured that a gig, perhaps even a residency, could occur soon at the nearby Anthology Lounge. I hope so – count me in.

Mambo Macoco: Jonathan Crayford (keyboards), Nathan Haines (winds and reeds), Miguel Fuentes (congas), Adån Tijerina (cencerro), Mostyn Cole (upright bass), Jacqui Niman (electric bass). The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, Auckland for the CJC Creative Jazz Club 28th November 2018.

Vivian Sessoms CJC 2018

Vivian (3)When the Soulful vocalist Vivian Sessoms visited in June last year, we were stunned by her voice and by her powerhouse delivery. We seldom get to experience American R & B styled vocalists in New Zealand and if we do we never see them in intimate settings like the Backbeat Bar. Her voice carries the history of her music and her vocal range and control are approaching the operatic. Sessoms is a vocalist with serious chops and an interesting backstory. Last week she returned.

Since her last visit, she has released a Soul/Jazz album titled ‘Life’. The album is receiving favorable attention and it is not surprising that she has been picked up by the Ropeadope recording label. During her two Auckland gigs, she performed a number of tunes from the album; including a few that were recorded at the same time and will likely appear on a future release. The first set opened with her take on the Stevie Wonder classic ‘I can’t help it’. This was pure R & B, but the set swiftly dived into bold reharmonisations of Jazz standards plus one or two pop tunes (‘Love is a losing game’ – Amy Winehouse and ‘Under the Cherry Moon’ – Prince). Vivian (1)

The Standards in that set were the lovely ‘Stella by Starlight’ (Victor Young), ‘Lush Life (Billy Strayhorn) and ‘The Waters of March’ (Tom Jobim). All of the above were reharmonised and made fresh. ‘Lush Life’ conveyed that sad world-weary vibe that Strayhorn penned so well and ‘The Waters of March’ (Aguas de Marco) was sung in English.  Jobim wrote both the Portuguese and the English lyrics and the song is a masterpiece. Sessoms infused it with a subtlety reflecting modern American life. When she came to the line ‘the shot of a gun, in the dead of the night’ you picked that up immediately and understood her message.Vivian (4)

Sessoms is an activist for civil rights and this thread runs through all of her shows (and the ‘Life’ album).  Last time she came to New Zealand it was her ‘I can’t breathe’ number – this time it was her take on ‘People (make the world go round)’, a tune made popular by the Stylistics  (composed by Thom Bell + Linda Creed). Before the tune, she spoke a little of her life growing up in Harlem and how normalised that daily struggle was to African-American people at that time. This tune in her hands was a plea for people to do better and to fight on until equality is a reality, not just a distant hope. An interesting song choice which got the Sessoms treatment was ‘I who have nothing’. We associate it with Shirley Bassey or Joe Cocker but long before that Ben E King released it. Actually, it is an old Italian song titled ‘Uno Dei Tanti’ (by Carlo Denida).

This time Sessoms had her husband Chris Parks touring with her. Parks is a well-known bassist and producer on the New York scene and on the album, he is co-credited in all of the arrangements. Parks played a punchy electric bass, Jonathan Crayford and Ron Samsom were the band members for this gig, Crayford having accompanied her convincingly last time she came.

The album is widely available and I have included a Spotify clip from ‘Life’. Her take on Strange Fruit is the standout for me. A harrowing song based on the poem by Abel Meeropol and made famous by Billie Holiday. In light of recent comments made during the US primaries and on the banners of the Alt-Right, these issues are scandalously still with us. I have also put up a clip from the gig – ‘Waters of March’ (the sound quality is quite good but the glare of the spotlights affected the focus slightly in places).

Life Tour: Vivian Sessoms (vocals), Chris Parks (electric bass), Jonathan Crayford (keys), Ron Samsom (drums) – Backbeat Bar for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 22nd November 2018).

 

McAll @ Freida Margolis

Barney Freidas (3)The pleasure of experiencing great music in small venues is inestimable. Sure, we love it when the famous cats blow through town, rush to get our tickets for the town hall concerts, pay the hefty price tag gladly and listen; watch the tiny figures way, way down on stage.  I have attended many such concerts over the years and regarded them among life’s high points, but now I am not so sure. As great as these concerts are and as amazing as the visiting musicians are, the experience is filtered through layers of complexity and as a result, one essential ingredient is often missing, that feeling of warm intimacy.

I have heard road-wise musicians talk of a virtuous feedback loop, the way artist and audience feed off each other until the music becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. Large civic venues are by their very nature redactive and the end result is often a performer facing a passive sea of listeners. Anyone who has been tapped on the shoulder during a performance and been told by an usher to sit still will get my point. Sitting still and mute is difficult for seasoned Jazz lovers. We know when to hold our breath and we know not to chatter, but we also understand when to vocalise our joy or when to exhort a soloist to greater heights. And bodies will sway and feet will tap – that’s the fine point of engagement. When the music is visceral it radiates a life force and even at the most fundamental level of existence, atoms collide and shift. If it lives it moves.Barney Freidas (4)

Some of us, the lucky ones, have experienced an artist of international stature performing in a small cosy club. If it’s a pianist and if a very good piano is located in the venue, then it’s a recipe for unbounded enjoyment. A few days ago Barney McAll played at a sold-out venue at the Wellington International Jazz Festival. Thanks to his close friend Jonathan Crayford he stopped off for a day in Auckland on his return journey. There had been some discussion about this possibility a few months ago and JC assured me that it would happen. Because I had a prior warning I waited and when the tickets appeared I swooped like a hawk. Only the lucky few got to attend this gig.

The eye-catching online notification featured an attractive sketch and a poster which read; ‘Barney McAll plays Gospel solo piano at Freida Margolis, limited tickets available’.  In the fine print was the word, Steinway. Together this spelt seismic. When you hear McAll you experience more than just music, you experience dreamscapes and multiple histories. The first thing to grasp about McAll is that he can reference many styles and genres and while this is disconcerting to some, it is an essential part of his output. Cutting edge contemporary improvised music, Orchestral Jazz, alternative popular music, standards, soul, free or Gospel. While his projects can feature any of the above styles, each is laid down with the utmost integrity and each bears his unmistakable hallmark.

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What we heard were mostly Gospel hymns – the sort you would hear in a Harlem church. They were hymns, but not presented in the way you’d hear them in a New Zealand or Australian church. They were improvisational vehicles and the voicings of some old-time Jazz greats shone through. I have heard such voicings from the likes of Hank Jones and this is hardly surprising. Musicians like Jones came up through the black gospel church experience. What is uncommon, is to hear this from a white Australian musician.  His eight years of playing in American Gospel churches left its mark of authenticity on him.

During the night he invited Jonathan Crayford and Bella Kalolo to join him. Crayford accompanied on piano, free improvising, while McAll played an unusual guitar-like instrument, imparting a sitar sound or prepared piano sound. Kalolo was obviously delighted to be accompanied by McAll and even though she was unamplified and therefore low volume the two of them had strong chemistry. While they approach the tunes differently, Gospel is clearly something both artists understand.

McAll also played Necter Spur from his ‘Mooroolbark’ album and ‘The Nock Code’ from his recent ‘Hearing the Blood’ album.  Both albums garnered multiple awards and significant praise. Unencumbered by a band, he ranged freely over the numbers and found exquisite asides to explore in-depth. This was music to be experienced from three metres away. This was a love letter to the classic Steinway ‘D’ series and Freida Margolis was the perfect backdrop. I had mounted the camera up high and it was surrounded by tiles which brightened the sound – but that piano – those tunes and those musicians found the magic and gave us a gig to remember.

Barney McAll (Steinway D, stringed instrument), Bella Kalolo (vocals), Jonathan Crayford (Steinway D) – for McAll albums visit Extra Celestial Arts on Bandcamp.

The Oblivious Eight

JeffJeff Henderson is a freedom warrior from outside of the perimeter fence.  On the 9th of May, 2018, he marched barefooted into the Backbeat Bar with a ragtag army of irregulars. The audience had come well prepared and a pregnant air of anticipation hung over the bandstand during setup.  Unusually, there were no lower ranks in this army, all were battle-hardened veterans (or anti-heroes depending on your viewpoint). All had impressive service records, an advance guard who took no prisoners. Jonathan Crayford is arguably the most famous of the troop, a decorated hero who swiftly commandeered a C3 organ (an ancient analogue machine decorated by psychedelic art and reminiscent of a Haight Asbury weed shop). Beside him sat machine gunner Steve Cournane, a rat-tat-tat freedom fighter recently returned from Peru. The remaining soldier, battle scared and bleeding, was Eamon Edmundson-Wells (his Viking surname tells it’s own story).  Jeff (1)

The first set was a powerhouse of inventiveness. An outburst of raw energy cradled cunningly in a cocoon of warm grooves. This one step closer-than-usual to Jazz approach may have surprised some, but certainly not me.  I have witnessed Henderson doing this time and again. He can pick over the bones of anything from heavy metal to folk music. He is fearless in his appropriations and he always transforms base metals without fear or favour. This was pure alt music alchemy. Henderson is the real deal, a musician with a calculated irreverence, a sound jocky with an inside-outside approach. A man who dives so deep inside his artform that few dare to follow. As he traversed the various moods and tempos, you could hear his trademark multiphonics; nothing lingering too long. There were too many fresh ideas ahead and no time for a tea break.  Jeff (2)

The compositions were wonderful and each in a different way. It was inspired that Henderson surrounded himself with such a warm groove. Drum beats that either dove into a 70’s groove or even took a Buddy Rich turn. A warm as toast Crayford tinged B3 sound and a solid blood dripping bass line. That sort of surrounding could have been a straight jacket for an avant-garde player but in Henderson’s hands, it was a liberating vehicle.  He worked off the others constantly and they, in turn, gave him clear air without deviating from their given roles. This was one of those special nights where every musician shone a light, cutting through the mundane and dispelling all hints of mediocrity.  They were so deep in the music that they were doubtless ‘oblivious’ to the rows of open-mouthed listeners. I must, however, raise an eyebrow at the name, there were clearly more than eight band members on that bandstand.

Auckland is the richer for Henderson’s presence. We should count our lucky stars that he jumps the perimeter wire from time to time. This was an eight out of eight performance. Jeff Henderson (baritone & alto sax, compositions), Jonathan Crayford (C3 organ), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (upright bass), Steve Cournane (drums) – June 9, 2018, Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club, K’Road, Auckland. Jeff (3)

Jonathan Crayford’s ‘Steinway Tour’

SoloJ (1) Rarely, do we get to experience something truly sublime and for this to occur a number of planets must be perfectly aligned. Art at this level cannot be forced as the realization is dependant on both tangibles and intangibles. The musician might be in peak form, but if the room or the instrument is mediocre then the fine edge of perfection is blunted. It is harder to achieve in a capacious concert hall; easier in a well-appointed studio or an intimate vibing Jazz club. There is no manual to guide us to the point of departure. It is a divine alchemy pure and simple.

When I heard that Jonathan Crayford would be touring the country with a Steinway D Concert piano and one with considerable provenance, my first inclination was to doubt. This was no small undertaking. The piano in question was special, played by luminaries such as Lily Kraus, who signed it. It was formerly owned by a branch of the Guggenheim family and if Crayford had not asked a friend to purchase it, we would have lost it to an offshore purchaser. The friend, surprisingly, agreed and said, “Now use it”. Crayford is one of the few musicians who could pull this off.

The piano and Crayford travelled up from Wellington a few days ago and the first concert took place on the day of their arrival in Auckland. The lovely Uxbridge Arts Centre in Howick was the first venue; a pleasant, modern 100+ seat auditorium with good acoustics (especially for a piano) and an intimate cosiness.  I arrived early as I was videoing and sat quietly in the darkness; watching Crayford and his magnificent piano get acquainted.

Crayford approaches pianos with reverence and sensitivity. I watched as he played a few phrases – then he paused when a particular voicing took his attention. Putting his ear close and playing it again with a look of delight. He was learning the secrets and subtleties of the instrument. Later during the concert, he gently tapped out a note which had taken his fancy. “Listen carefully”, he said to the audience, pointing to a particular key. A soft harmonic-rich sound reverberated gently through the room – revealing a warm golden timbre. As he shared these insights we felt privileged. Crayford treats fine pianos as living entities; beings to be understood, curated, exalted. When he finished a piece he would gently lift his hands and time would stall as the slow decay of chord or phrase created new harmonics and textures. Sound bouncing off wood, frame and room until it faded into infinity. SoloJ (4)

He opened with a composition of his own, a reflective piece of deep spacious improvisation, perfectly realised and just the right length to reel us in. The awed hush from the audience said it all. This concert was special and everyone there swiftly grasped that. Next, we heard his take on an obscure but unmistakable Monk tune, the familiar jagged lines morphing into new shapes as he went. There was no set playlist, no charts to guide him; just a small black notebook with dozens of possible tunes written down and in no particular order. The piano and his musician’s instinct informing him of the journey as he went. Tunes were chosen or rejected on the fly. His programme consisting mainly of reflective material but with a few faster-paced tunes to balance these out. A tune from the Spanish civil war attributed to Garcia Lorca was an example of the latter. On the slower reflective pieces like a Satie Gymnopedie, he left space for the music to breathe – space for the spirit of the piano to sing through.  He would often play three pieces together and then rise from the piano to quote a line from Shakespeare or to offer an insight into a piece. He is a fascinating speaker and his enthusiasm utterly infectious. Nothing was out of place, everything he did conveyed the magic of the moment. SoloJ (6)

I urge music lovers to clear their calendars and attend these extraordinary concerts as Crayford travels throughout New Zealand. It is seldom that we get to experience projects like this and extremely rare to hear them in such intimate spaces. The most difficult gig in Jazz is the free-ranging improvised solo piano concert. When it works (and this certainly did) it is the most rewarding. This was deep improvisation, sensitive interaction and piano/sound curation at it’s best.  It paid respect to the solo art form and above all to a very special Steinway piano. It was Jarrett like (but without the abuse). It was Crayford at his best and that is enough to satisfy any music lover.

For tour, details check out: jonathancrayford.com – (video up later)

John Fenton  – March 2018

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Lucien Johnson + 5

a2788670674_16.jpgThe eponymously titled album ‘Lucian Johnson+5’ was first released in 2016 and has recently been re-released in Japan on vinal. I have only encountered Johnson performing once or twice as he has spent a lot of time outside of New Zealand. He was born in Wellington, but led an interesting life elsewhere, travelling the world with various innovative bands and living for long periods in Paris. I first encountered him when he toured with ‘The Troubles; a delightfully anarchic folksy ensemble he co-founded along with Scottish Jazz drummer John Rae. After hearing Lucien Johnson+5, I will be paying close attention to his futures offerings.

I became aware of the album’s existence soon after its release, but carelessly lost the Bandcamp access code when I changed computers. I finally regained access, listened and was immediately impressed. This is a mature piece of work with real depth. Given the diversity of experience, the musicians bring to the project that is hardly surprising.  Johnson’s musicianship and compositional abilities are well known – pare him with these five musicians and you get something special. Any project involving Crayford, French, O’Connor, Van Dijk and Callwood is going to grab the attention.

There is a certain mood emanating from this album, a palpable sense of the Iberian Peninsula. It is more than just the track names – it cuts far deeper than that. You will not hear overt Jazz Flamenco or Moorish tunes. You will hear reflective ballads, Latin, hard swing and all with fine arrangements (arrangements which evoke the hay-day of the classic Jazz ensemble). The album warmly invites us to engage, and the deeper we engage the greater the reward. The musicians were clearly onboard with the project and each of them gets a chance to shine. There are many wonderful solos, none that are too long and each solo harnessing to the spirit of the collective. Brilliant musicians all, but with no egos on display.

‘Light Shaft’ has a dancy Latin feel with French and Johnson reacting to Crayford’s rhythmic accenting; Crayford later tying it all together with a masterful solo. ‘El Cid’ is another great tune, again with a Latin American flavour, this time Afro Cuban. The clave aside, it evokes the Reconquista hero perfectly. El Cid’s is a tale well worth the re-telling; especially since modern scholars discovered that his antecedents were actually Moors, the very people he fought with such evangelistic fervour – a modern parable. ‘Zapata’ is another delightful tune and with plenty of meat on the bone.  It opens with O’Connor beating out a Krupa like rhythm on the toms, the ensemble comes in next, navigating a skillfully arranged head with nimble ease. Van Dijk and Crawford follow with stunning solos, but everyone is superb. This is a great piece of ensemble playing and above all it is fun. Here is Zapata:

My favourite from the album is ‘Asturias’. This track has a thoughtful quality and as many layers as a ripe onion. In spite of being a sextet, the ensemble sounds like a nonet at times – capturing the vibe of 50’s Gil Evans. This lies mainly in the skillful writing, as space and texture are maximised. The rich voicings of the horn line are also of importance, as they somehow manage to convey substance and airiness at the same time. Nick Van Dijk in particular, utilising the opportunity to shine through. Crayford and Callwood also have essential roles – Crayford creating a strumming effect, as Callwood did in the opening bars. Asturias is a region of northwestern Spain and also a Flamenco guitar style (a style often adapted to other instruments). Albeniz wrote in this style in the 19th century,  The melody over a strummed pedal chord (the thumb playing the melody line).

When we listen to evocative music, we bring our imagination to the experience. Whether intended by Johnson or not, this album took me back to Spain. I have travelled extensively in Andalucia and rekindling those memories through this music was a pleasure. The artwork is also superb and that is credited to George Johnson. The best place to source this album is on Bandcamp or via the Lucien Johnson website. lucienjohnson5.bandcamp.com

 

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.

 

Jay Rodriguez & Jonathan Crayford – music with heart & soul

Jay JoCray (2)Behind the doors of the beautiful Kauri villa, down the long corridor and the wide descending staircase, past the crush of people eagerly awaiting a significant and unique musical event, we edged forward; shuffled by the crowd, finding ourselves in a surprisingly large room; large enough to hold seventy people, a gorgeous warmly lit room with mirrored walls – an old dance studio brought back to life. As we crossed the room Jay Rodriguez greeted us, behind him, Jonathan Crayford shuffled through sheet music; both framed by an elegant grand piano and an array of horns on stands. I had interviewed Rodriguez earlier and had attended his sell out gig at the CJC Creative Jazz Club. There was never any doubt that this night, like the one a few nights earlier would deliver something special.Jay JoCray (1)If ever two musicians were destined to play duo format, it is these two. It is a challenging format as the safety nets are gone; it is deep level communication and frighteningly intimate. It requires deep listening and empathy as much as storytelling; it requires conversational dexterity. This was a night never to be forgotten, a night when great music became sublime. Rodriguez and Crayford have been friends for a long time, meeting up in New York in the late 90’s and forming an instant connection; Rodriguez’ ‘Groove Collective’ and other projects the meeting ground. They refer to each other as musical brothers and their communication during the last three days underscored that.Jay JoCray The first time I saw them together was around eight years ago. The gig stuck in my mind for many reasons, but especially because of one tune; Bob Dylan’s ‘I pity the poor immigrant’. It spoke directly to me as it oozed with humanity. When I interviewed Rodriguez I teased out this a theme; pointing to the set lists, the tunes which cut to the heart of the human condition, tunes communicated with deep empathy. For example, their rendition of Keith Jarrett’s ‘The rich (and the poor)’, Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’. The former, a blues, reminding us that the blues is more than just a musical form. In their hands, it informs us about inequality, discrimination, hurt and hope. The human condition again. The latter, ‘Alabama’, moved me to tears. Jazz lovers know this story, but it has seldom been told so well. The piece is based on the cadences of a Martin Luther King speech, a speech given immediately after four little girls were killed as they worshipped, murdered by an unrepentant KKK. The musicians dived straight into the emotion of this awful tale; the incomprehension and anger, then a plea for humanity, an exhortation to do better, the hope; it was all in there.

In answer to the question about humanism, Rodriguez pointed out the realities of American life. “We are living through hard times back home and the blues is about reality. Expressing life from the heart is something that can’t be taught in Jazz school. Jazz school gives you the basics, but your voice is something else, you have to search; some never find it”. He told me that he had been lucky enough to find his own musical voice early on and he was comfortable with it. He can play in many styles with ease and the key to this is the man himself. He is intelligent, open-minded and well-informed, but it’s his friendliness and warmth that impresses most. The man and his music are one.Jay JoCray (3)He is a multi-reeds and winds player and his command of each instrument is strong. I asked him if he favoured one horn over another or had been tempted to double less? This was prompted by a similar discussion with Bennie Maupin. Maupin’s answer had cut to the point, “It’s mostly about dedication, hard work and five times the amount of practice”. Rodriguez answer was a little different. “Man, I love these instruments, every single one of them, and I couldn’t abandon any of them”. It is impressive to hear an artist sounding so strong and so individualistic on so many instruments; bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute (he also doubles on alto and baritone saxophone). His bass clarinet is rich and woody with a tone production like John Surman – his tenor can range from low down raspy bluesiness to the light vibrato-less sound of ‘Pres’; and all of this in a clear authentic voice.

Crayford is an extraordinary musician, but last week he pulled out something extra. This was about personal chemistry (or perhaps alchemy). It was largely down to him that the project was conceived and he certainly made the most of it. He is the New Zealand ‘Tui’ Jazz artist of the year, a respected international troubadour, a pioneer reaching beyond the stars. The CJC quartet gig was a satisfying and joyous occasion but there was even better to come. When I interviewed Rodriguez a few days later he and Crayford invited me to a private event; the mysterious duo gig: so here I was in this amazing space, the mirrored dance studio, an oasis hidden in deep suburbia.  As soon as they began playing the conversation deepened, each revealing new subtleties and wearing their hearts on the sleeves; … humanity. As far as I know, none of it was recorded and while that is sad, perhaps it is only right. Sometimes magic should be left well alone – left untrammelled, lest it changes like Schroedinger’s cat.Jay JoCray (4) During the dance studio gig, their song choices delighted and astonished. For example, Monk’s ‘Epistrophy’, A Puccini aria, Michel Legrand’s ‘You must believe in spring’, McCartney’s ‘Long and winding road’; all in all an improbable and extraordinary journey. The CJC set list included Yusef Lateef’s stunningly beautiful ‘Morning’, Victor Young’s ‘Golden Earrings’ Keith Jarrett’s ‘Rich (and the poor man)’ – from the Dewey Redman/Jarrett/Haden Impulse era, John Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’ and a lovely original by Rodriguez (I think it was titled ‘Your Sound’). Mostyn Cole and Ron Samsom were amazing as well. They are both fine musicians and a good choice for this line-up.

When you look at the Jay Rodriguez discography or bio, it is no wonder he is so comfortable in such a variety of musical spaces. He started on saxophone as a child and soon came under the tutelage of the greats. His mentors along the way included Paquito D’ Rivera, Phil Woods, Sir Roland Hannah, Barry Harris, Kenny Werner, George Coleman, Joe Henderson, John Gilmore, Gil Goldstein and so it goes on. It reads like the history of Jazz. I can think of few players who have worked with both Doc Cheatham and John Zorn (yes he evidently played Cobra and has performed at the Knitting Factory). He is Grammy nominated and has guested on the Jimmy Fallon show.

 Music is a universal language, but its primal source is often overlooked. Scientists tell us that it is, the original and most profound form of communication; it is the lingua franca of our polyglot planet. All too often we focus on the scaffolding or the dialect; all too often we marvel at technical skills or frown at the lack thereof. The older I grow, the more I desire something different; the sound of the human spirit; communication straight from the heart. While Jay Rodriguez and Jonathan Crayford possess a grab bag of wizardry, they also transform notes into an unforgettable life experience. Long may this collaboration continue.

Rodriguez/Crayford Quartet: Jay Rodriguez (tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, Flute), Jonathan Crayford (Rhodes, electronics), Mostyn Cole (upright bass), Ron Samson (drums). 30th August 2017, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, Auckland.

Rodriguez/Crayford Duo: Jay Rodriguez (tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, flute) – Jonathan Crayford (piano). 1st September 2017, Grey Lynn.

Monsters of the Deep (Crayford/Haines)

Monsters (4)This was trippy stuff. A band that gnawed at the bones of form while the music swept us along; taking us ever deeper, forcing us to loosen our grip, as the waterfalls of sound consumed us. This was most definitely filmic music; throwing up subliminal specters like a Burroughs cut-up montage: an indie soundtrack, Voodoo but with four Papa Docs urging us toward trance.Monsters (1)Attempts to confine improvised music within historic boundaries is plain foolishness. Never has this been more obvious to me than at last week’s ‘Monsters of The Deep’ gig.  Superficially it sounded like, looked like classic fusion; but it was and it wasn’t.  The keyboard instruments were classic analog, the lighting otherworldly; various delays, distortions or effects echoed across the room. While the overall vibe nodded in the direction of Jazz/Rock, the musical language was that of deep improvisation. The accessibility hiding worlds of complexity and there’s the wonder of it. Few local musicians could pull this off as well as Crayford and Haines did.Monsters (2)The collaboration between Crayford and Haines is certainly not their first; that took place in New York a long time ago. Since then they have both gained international reputations, recording in the UK or in New York. Both have separately won the Best New Zealand Jazz album of the year during the last decade, both attract sizable audiences. These artists are generally offshore but we caught a break this year –  they are domiciled in Auckland at the moment.Monsters (3) While the project draws on various inspirational sources like Alice Coltrane and Igor Stravinsky it is also brimming with originality. This is ‘spiritual music’ of the highest order and it uses the devices of the Shaman: long intensifying vamps and hypnotic beats which slip deftly into the consciousness. Throughout the night, it was Haines who took the melodic path while Crayford provided magnificent architectural structures. If even one element was removed, the edifice could fail; this was a music built from layers, each balancing delicately on the one beneath; only exposed incrementally, like a nested Russian doll. Marika Hodgson was the perfect choice for running those long ostinato bass lines. Her time feel is impeccable and she creates a gut punch while blending seamlessly into the mix. Not many know it, but Crayford is also a gifted bass player – he knows exactly what is needed and he trusts Hodgson to deliver.  The one musician that I had not seen before was Mickey Ututaonga. He has a long history with Haines and again he was a good choice. Because the music was so carefully balanced, the last thing it needed was a busy splashy drummer. Ututaonga synced with the others, his every beat enhancing the overall hypnotic effect. MonstersThe other stars of the show were the instruments and pedals. For Crayford a Fender Rhodes and an equally vintage Clavinet; for Haines, his beautiful horns fed through a vintage SM7 Shure Microphone, then into a preamp and guitar FX board.

I have put up a clip titled ‘Stravinsky Thing‘ (Crayford). The piece is inspired by Igor Stravinsky; first an intro, then building slowly over a vamp, ratcheting up the tension on keyboards as an ostinato theme builds – the insistent bass line, the hypnotic drums, these freeing up the horns – soprano and tenor saxophones exploring; weaving in threads of vibrant colour. If only Stravinsky had been there – he was never afraid of modernity. These musicians are real monsters and their music is deep. I hope that they hang around in Auckland long enough to do it again.

Monsters of the Deep: Jonathan Crayford/Nathan Haines.  Crayford (Clavinet, Rhodes, effects, compositions), Haines (tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute, effects, compositions), Marika Hodgson (electric bass), Mickey Ututaonga (drums). CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Road, Auckland, June 21, 2017.

 

 

Vivian Sessoms (New York)

Vivian SessomsWhen Vivian Sessoms sings, she takes you deep inside the music. Whether singing the American Songbook, or her own compositions, her storytelling resonates. She sings of American life with all its contradictions; joy and pain both laid bare. Her rendering of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Butterfly‘ tender: the rendering of her own composition, ‘I Can’t Breathe‘, a song referencing the ‘black lives matter’ struggle – raw.  As she sang ‘I Can’t Breathe‘, people brushed tears away; feeling the loss, the injustice; sharing in the incomprehension. She sang it for the families of the young lives so senselessly snuffed out; dying at the hands of those sent to protect them – she sang it for us, a people located an ocean away. We listened and understood the message. Art is at its best when it is fearless and truth-telling – Sessoms gets this.Vivian Sessoms (6)Sessoms is Harlem born and bred; an activist, the niece of Nancy Wilson, the daughter of musicians and a gifted performer with a long string of credits to her name. She was raised in the Jazz world but found early acclaim as a soul singer. Now she is returning to her Jazz roots with her ‘Life‘ album. The tour reviews have been overwhelmingly positive and no wonder; At age 9 she opened for Marvin Gaye, later working with Michael Jackson, Cher and Stevie Wonder. As a performer she is simply riveting; her voice a miracle  – to have her here in an intimate Jazz club setting, a rare treat.Vivian Sessoms (5)What we were hearing was counter-intuitive. A voice of incredible power, but a voice filled with subtlety: A voice that dominated a room, but never at the expense of nuance. Although powerful, her instrument never strained, a voice which flowed as naturally as breathing. These are rare qualities when considered together in one package. Her material was also well thought out; The standards timeless but each one interestingly reinterpreted: ‘Tenderly’, ‘Love for Sale’, ‘Round Midnight’, ‘Never Let Me Go’, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ and others.

Sessoms New Zealand pick-up band was assembled at short notice and credit must go to Caro Manins for organising this. She chose well, but with Jonathan Crayford on keyboards, it was always going to work out fine. Just days after winning the New Zealand Jazz Tui album of the year, he stepped in as an accompanist, giving us a truly magical performance. His solos often stunning us with their brilliance, especially so the extended solo on Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good‘.  The others in the rhythm section were Mostyn Cole (electric and upright bass) and Adam Tobeck (drums). They were every bit the professionals an artist like this deserves. Sessoms looked about her at one point and asked the audience; “Just what do you put in the water here – your musicians are amazing”?Vivian Sessoms (7)Sessoms is a generous entertainer, happy to mingle with the audience, comfortable enough to tease them a little; posing for endless selfies and promising faithfully to return.  She even shared the microphone with several first-year students. That is the common touch – a thing Kiwis love; she read our love of informality well. For details about her ‘Life‘ album go to the website link below. If we support the album, it might just hasten her return.Vivian Sessoms (1)She departed New Zealand the next morning on an early flight; arriving in the USA to be greeted by the news, that yet another jury had acquitted a police officer of killing an unarmed black youth. In these troubled times, more power to her.

Vivian Sessoms (vocals, composition), Jonathan Crayford (keyboards), Mostyn Cole (electric bass), Adam Tobeck (drums). CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, Auckland, June 14th, 2017 – viviansessoms.com

Caro Manins – Joni Mitchell’s Mingus Experience

Joni 104The Joni Mitchell/ Charles Mingus project is always ripe for reevaluation and I’m glad that Caro Manins was the one to explore it again. The connection between Joni and Jazz experimentalism runs deep. Rolling Stone Magazine figured it out early on, describing her as a ‘Jazz savvy experimentalist’. While the connection is obvious in her 1979 ‘Mingus’ album the move toward a freer music and towards harmonic and rhythmic complexity began earlier in the mid 70’s. Initially coming up through the American folk tradition, she gradually embraced a different style. She would later say, “Anyone could have written my earlier music, but Hejira (and later albums) could only have come from me”. From the 70’s on, she utilised her own guitar tunings and often incorporated pedal point, chromaticism, and modality in her compositions. If you look at her later musical collaborations, names like Jaco Pastorius, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter stand out.Joni 099 (3)To her amazement at the time, a dying Charles Mingus asked Joni to call by. He told her that he had written a number of songs for her. Mingus passed before the completion of her project, but he heard all of the tunes except ‘God must be a Bogey Man’. Her ‘Mingus’ album followed soon after.  “It was as if I had been standing by a river – one toe in the water. Charles came along and pushed me in – sink or swim”.

Taking on a project like this is more daunting than it may appear to the casual observer. Understanding that, Caro Manins got busy writing new charts. This is not the sort of gig that you just throw together; this is not a covers band. Joni tunes don’t always behave in expected ways, there is a high degree of abstraction, layers of subtlety, places where the tunes change direction under their own impetus. Doing the Mingus album justice is not for the faint-hearted. The listener tends to associate Joni Mitchel with her biting lyrics and adamantine melodic clarity. In reality, although accessible, her tunes pivot on clever musical devices. The end result here was well worth the effort. A genuine commitment to the project made this happen, imbuing it with the integrity it deserved.Joni 101The project deserved a good lineup and it got one. Caro Manins, Roger Manins, Jonathan Crayford, Cameron McArthur and Ron Samsom. Crayford was especially interesting on this gig. His abstract explorative adventuring replaced by rich traditional voicings – his solos a history lesson; from locked hands chord-work to impressionistic delicacy. All of the musicians were respectful of Joni’s body of work and they understood that the best way to honour her legacy was by interpreting her work honestly and imaginatively. Not every tune came from Joni’s ‘Mingus’ album but all followed the Joni/Mingus/Jazz theme.Joni 102The gig was very well attended (no surprise there) and the audience enthusiastic. This was a CJC (Creative Jazz Club) event and it took place at the Albion Hotel on 29th June 2016. Caro Manins (leader, arranger, vocals), Jonathan Crayford (piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (Bass), Ron Samsom (drums, percussion).

Crayford/Cuenca – The Jazz Flamenco Project

Isabel & J 096When I recently interviewed visiting Flamenco dancer Isabel Rivera Cuenca she told me that she had met some wonderful New Zealand improvising musicians and, in particular, she mentioned Jonathan Crayford. They met at a party and briefly discussed doing a project together. As they had not been able to make contact since I supplied email addresses and the project quickly took shape. A talented sensuous Flamenco dancer from Barcelona and a gifted Kiwi improviser; irresistible.Isabel & J 099Jonathan Crayford has long been one of my favourite musicians and any project of his I will follow with enthusiasm. The thought of him doing a Jazz/Flamenco project filled me with joy. It takes a particular type of musician to reach across genres, and to do so with authenticity is a challenge. If anyone could pull this together at short notice it was Crayford; with his open ears and extraordinary musicality, he ticked all of the boxes. In recent years, he has performed in Spain, but only on Jazz projects. When I spoke to him two weeks before the gig he told me how pleased he was to work on this project, but that he knew little of Spanish music; I had no doubts that he would locate a pure essence and work with it and Isabel Cuenca was the perfect foil. As soon as they appeared on the bandstand the chemistry was obvious.Isabel & J 093 There is a real synergy between Jazz and Flamenco; they are musical cousins. Both musical forms fuse North African Rhythms with unique harmonic approaches, both created out of harsh repression. Underlining the driving rhythms of Flamenco is pure passion, contrasting a sad but beautiful dissonance. The musicians and dancers frequently call to each other in encouragement and this is not so different from the call and response in jazz. That they are similar in essence is hardly surprising – when the chants, dance and polyrhythms of Congo Square met with Creole melody, fed by a multitude of European influences (including Spanish music), Jazz was born.Isabel & J 100

Early in the first set, Crayford played a variant of his composition ‘Galois Candle’. This appears on his ‘Dark Light’ album nominated for a Jazz Tui award last year. This memorable tune although rhythmic is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of danceability. The synergy between dancer and pianist soon located a sweet-spot in the heart of the tune. I recall Cuenca telling me that everything else in Flamenco was subordinate to honest deeply felt emotion. That is where the Duende resides. A little later we heard an innovative and compelling version of ‘Will o’ the Wisp’ (from El Amor Brujo) by Manuel De Falla. Not the brooding version that Gil Evans used on Sketches in Spain but a paired down version. Stripped to the barest essentials of melody and rhythm. Crayford dampened the strings with one hand and created a simple clipped strumming effect, while Cuenca sang gently over this, softly clapping all the while. It could not have been more effective. After that came a tune by Fredrica Garcia Lorca, the poet who died at the hands of Franco’s Nationalists. This tune ‘Los Cuatro Muleres’ sounds pretty, even jaunty, but it hides a deep sadness as with all Lorca poems and tunes. Again done movingly, and both Crayford and Cuenca sang verses.Isabel & J 103During the second set we heard tunes which moved closer to the Flamenco idiom. In these free-ranging highly improvised tunes Crayford has few peers. Towards the end of the evening, the two were in absolute lock-step; Cuenca reacting to every nuance of the music and bringing her fluid kinetic brilliance to bear, dancing her way into the hearts of everyone there. The communication was simply electric.

I have posted a video clip from the first set (Galois Candle [Crayford]) and an audio clip from near the end of the second set. I hope that Crayford records some of these tunes as they were magical. Cuenca has many fans in new Zealand and she says that she will return here soon. I hope so because more of this project would please us.

Jonathan Crayford (piano, vocals, compositions), Isabel Cuenca (dance, vocals & compositions) – at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 09 March 2016.

Jonathan Crayford – Making Pianos Sing

Jonathan Crayford Interview  (part one)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Part Two of this post to be posted later)

Who: Jonathan Crayford (piano) – guest Roger manins

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

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The Circling Sun

Circling Sun 11-3-2014 063Any astronomer worth their salt will tell you that it is paradoxical for a sun to embark on a circular orbit. The last time this happened was during the Spanish Inquisition. On Wednesday the paradox increased when the Circling Sun departed their orbit to play at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club). This gig had been a long time coming and we welcomed it. Hearing them away from the babble of the hard-drinking Ponsonby Road crowd was a treat for us. The Circling Sun always give of their best, but this time we could hear the quirks and subtleties unfiltered. This is a band with a vast soundscape and the Jazz club echoed to the sounds of doogan, Tuba, analogue keyboards, digital keyboards, piano, trumpet, flugel horn, flute, tenor Circling Sun 11-3-2014 066saxophone, upright bass, drums and electronics. This is the type of music that sits well with me.

In spite of the name, the Circling Sun is not solipsistic. Not locked into an inwards gazing spiral. A dictionary definition tells us that Solipsism is a spiralling madness that no-one else can enter. Theirs is an inclusive madness of serendipitous happenstance. A band where personnel changes are as seamless as flowing water and where the only truly unchanging thing is the name. A band that can appropriate sounds and recreate them into new musical forms and all achieved without fear or favour. Another-world to experience.

The group cited influences as far-flung as Alice Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, Randy Western and Tom Waits. Although the link is possibly fanciful on my part, perhaps the influence Cosmic Jazz/Funk is present, an obscure genre close to my heart. They are chaotic, loose and free atCircling Sun 11-3-2014 074 times; then out of nowhere come tasty arranged melodic heads. Deftly extracted from the frequent mesmerising groove laden vamps.

Cameron Allen should be heard more often in settings like this. He is a gifted saxophonist and winds player with great musical ideas, often imparting a raw energy. He is also drawn to home-assembled electronic wizardry as many in this band are.  Finn Scholes on horns is another who doubles atypically (including tuba, keys and piano). He has recently been overseas and since returning I have seen him perform on a number of occasions.  His articulation is always interesting and he has a rich sound. Tinged with the vibrato of the mariachi trumpet. A sound which he owns and one that fits the bands vibe perfectly.  Circling Sun 11-3-2014 070

Neil Watson like Cameron Allen is a mainstay of this band. His classic fender, augmented lately by pedal steel guitar. The latter adding colour and texture and above all adding that warm embracing feel of country. Anyone who has followed Frisell’s journeys, fusing Jazz with country americana will get this. Rui Inaba on bass is often encountered with Watson and frequently in this lineup. Here he sits solidly at the heart of the storm, maintaining the rhythmic groove unfazed.  Circling Sun 11-3-2014 062The most powerful presence is drummer Julien Dyne. A versatile gifted artist who has travelled and recorded widely. His beats while often referencing his multi genre background, urge the band to greater heights. It is a privilege to see drummers of this calibre and I hope that he continues with open-ended Jazz projects like this. I have heard him on numerous occasions and I like what I hear.  As a unit, this combination takes no prisoners and the audience were glad of it. The first guest to join them was J Y Lee who quickly settled in on baritone saxophone. He often plays with the Circling Sun and is a popular addition.Circling Sun 11-3-2014 075During the second set a great gig got even better. Jonathan Crayford arrived and without too much persuading, sat in on piano. This was met with obvious delight by the audience, as Crayford is extremely popular. He knew none of the tunes as they were mostly originals and there was virtually no sheet music to guide him. It didn’t matter. Someone would announce the key and then a few chords in he would locate the heart of the tune. A musician of his experience and gifts is no stranger to situations like this. The audience, clearly wild about the gig, were by now whooping with enthusiasm between numbers. When Crayford sat in they felt like they’d won the lottery. He doesn’t get home often, but improvised music fans are eager to soak up what ever they can get of him.

Who: Circling Sun – Cameron Allen (tenor sax, flute, keys, doogan), Finn Scholes (Trumpet, Flugel, tuba, Piano, Keys), Neil Watson (Fender guitar, pedal steel guitar), Rui Inaba (upright bass), Julien Dyne (drums, electronics) – guests: Jonathan Crayford (piano, keys), J Y Lee (alto sax, baritone sax).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 11th March 2015

Jazz stories that need retelling (2014)

“What often distinguishes a poetic list from a practical one is only the intention with which we contemplate it’ – Umberto Ecco (The Infinity of Lists).

At this time of year Jazz Journalists post their ‘best of’ lists.  By tradition, this provides a platform for the writers to focus on something that took their fancy (or not). It is seldom an exhaustive analyses of the years musical offerings, but a time to indulge in a few well-honed prejudices with impunity. I make no apology for the antipodean bias.

A look back at some pianists who impressed in 2014:

There has been a lot of ink spilt in analysing Jazz piano over the years and the task is always daunting. In recent years all too many masters of the keyboard have passed on such as the inimitable Hank Jones.  He encompassed a vast era of jazz, ever fresh and endlessly tasteful; bringing with him something of stride, bebop and hardbop and above all the blues.  At the passing of Jones and other acknowledged masters, there is an increased awareness of other great pianists still with us (a good example is the belated and welcome attention being given to George Cables).  Many of these artists have been hiding in plain view and paying them due attention is increasingly important.  As musical tastes mature, and new directions emerge, the field ever broadens.

Jazz fans who live outside of the USA generally have a reasonable awareness of pan-American, European, Scandinavian and (perhaps) Antipodean Jazz musicians.  If you live at the hub of the wheel, the USA, it will probably be less likely.  Pianism is not about how many notes you play, where you come from or the 0000210166_36cleverness your ideas. It is about integrity.  Musical integrity is rare but universally available.

There is a ‘sound’ that belongs to certain locations, perhaps to great cities; where an assimilation of environment occurs unwittingly, coalescing within an artist. This is not planned, as self-conscious cleverness is the road to perdition. The mindless recycling of others cleverness a greater anathema.  Mary Lou Williams once said (to slightly paraphrase): “Once a pianist comes to grips  with the instrument and can master its capabilities, stop taking formal lessons.  Risk taking explorations should occur next”.

Pianists like Mike Nock, Barney McAll and Jonathan Crayford all have a unique quality, one that reflects where they come from.  They are musicians of the world having honed their craft on the road, but distinctly Australasian for all that. No English, Italian, Scandinavian or Australian pianist is going to sound like Randy Weston and nor should they.  Musicians of integrity will bring something of themselves to the mix and a select few will bring a sense of place. The three pianists I have mentioned have lived and worked in the USA (often extensively) but not at the expense of their roots voice.   Each found a groove that only they could unlock. There are 88 notes on the standard piano keyboard, but in the spaces between the notes and in the choices made, there are subliminal messages. That is where the real magic lies.

The Mike Nock Trio. (Aust) Gig at the ‘2014 Auckland Jazz Festival’, CJC (Creative Jazz Club). Mike Nock is one of New Zealand’s favourite musical sons and perhaps the improvising musician we most admire.  Although he has not lived here for many years, he often visits from Australia.  Many will know him from his ‘Fourth Way’ band, his recordings as sideman with people like Yusef Lateef or his long years as a celebrated member of the New York scene.  That said, his post USA work needs better examination and it is in Australia that people can gain a fuller sense of his body of work.  Nock is a truly gifted artist and he goes from strength to strength. “Nock’s ringing iconoclasm pervades all his music, taps a deep well of melody that transcends jazz and informs and ignites his every encounter.” – Fred Bouchard, Downbeat (USA). His live trio gigs are humour-filled and quirky, focussing on an eclectic mix of originals, standards turned upside down and almost forgotten tunes (i.e. Sweet Pumpkin).  The joy that Nock breathes into his gigs is infectious and it Mike Nock SIMA07_01makes you glad that you’re alive. Touring New Zealand with Nock were James ‘Pug’ Waples (drums) and Brett Hirst (bass)’.  These musicians while deeply attuned to each other were always full of surprises.  5 stars. *****

Barney McAll (USA) gigs in Auckland & Wellington NZ – Trio and Solo piano at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) and ‘The Wellington Jazz Festival 2014’.  McAll (an Australian) has lived in Brooklyn New York for many years, but he has never been forgotten in his home country Australia.  His visit to New Zealand won him many new fans.  There is an expansiveness and yet a completeness about McAll compositions. He sounds like no one else and as he digs into those earthy blues filled tunes, you hear the unmistakable echoes of real antipodean soul.  5 stars. *****

Jonathan Crayford, ‘Dark Light’ Trio (USA). It was Auckland’s good luck that the album release gig for Crayford’s ‘Dark Light’ Trio took place at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club).  A few weeks prior to that a local version of his ‘Biggish Band’ featured at the same venue (and at the Golden Dawn). I attended all three gigs. Jonathan Crayford is a peripatetic wonderer and a troubadour of immense talent.  His endless travels in music often bring him home to New Zealand and the lucky get to hear his imaginative projects.  4 stars ****

Other pianists of note: Kevin Field (NZ).  Field on piano or keys is a musical force to reckoned with. His taste is impeccable.  This year saw him record an album in New York with expat New Zealand bassist Matt Penman, drummer Obed Calvaire  and guitarist Nir Felder.  The album will probably be released sometime during 2015 and is eagerly anticipated.  Dark LightJan07_02Whether as accompanist or soloist, Field shines.  His work in 2014 on ‘Dog’, with Caitlin Smith and with the Australian saxophonist  Jamie Oehlers stand out as high points.  Adam Ponting (Aust) (Hip Flask ‘1’ & ’11’).  Ponting is an unusual but compelling pianist.  An original stylist who appears to approach tunes from an oblique angle, at first impressionistic, but leading you into a world of funky satisfying grooves.  This guy is definitely someone I would like to hear again.   It was also great to hear more of Alan Brown (NZ) on piano during 2014. He has some interesting piano and keys projects underway and we will hear more of those soon.   Steve Barry (Aust). Barry is an ex pat Auckland pianist now based in Australia.  He visited New Zealand twice during 2014.  His visits and albums are always received enthusiastically.  Barry is a musician who works hard and produces the goods.  His new album ‘Puzzles’ with Dave Jackson (alto), Alex Boneham (bass) and Tim Firth, lifts the bar for up and coming local musicians.  We had a number of visitors in 2014 and to bring us a European perspective was the Benny Lackner Trio (Germany/USA).  The pianist Benny Lackner has visited New Zealand on several previous occasions and the aesthetic he brings is finely honed. The band has a similar feel to EST.  There is the occasional use of electronics and they quickly find tasty grooves that could only emanate from a European Band.

Alan Broadbent (USA) has had a truly amazing year with the release of a solo album ‘Heart to Heart’ and his NDR Big band album ‘America The Beautiful’. Multiple Grammy 7kofphkhadu-htw5jpjp_zmxkdevwd478h5dat8o4ms winner Broadbent is our best known improvising export and he has spent the last year touring Europe and America to great acclaim.  The solo album was given a rare 5 star rating by downbeat and ‘America The Beautiful’ was recently voted one of the 10th best albums of 2014.

Miscellaneous Gigs and projects:  

Mike Moreno trio (USA) – for sheer guitar artistry and taste, Moreno is hard to beat.  His beautiful (often mournful) sound, compelling lines and clarity of vision left the Sydney audience in awe.  His Australian trio were Alex Boneham (bass) and Ben Vanderwal (drums).  the choice of sidemen was solid, as they complimented and responded to every nuance of Moreno’s playing.  This was a class act all round.  The Troubles (Wellington, NZ), Portland Public House, ‘Auckland Jazz Festival’.  This Wellington ensemble is a machine of wondrous invention.  Its anarchic dissing of powerful institutions, cheerful irreverence and inappropriate humour, carves it out a special place in the hearts of rebellious souls.  Iconoclast drummer and composer John Rae (ex-Edinburgh) had added the heavy weight presence of saxophonist Roger Manins (Auckland) to the mix for recent gigs. That was an inspired choice.  Jeff Henderson’s ‘Dreamville’ project (Auckland, NZ) CJC (Creative Jazz Cub). This avant-garde gig, billed as superconscious Jazzmares, was a triumph by any measure.  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. This gig won many to Henderson’s cause.

Notable local Albums of 2014: (in no particular order)

‘Dog’ (Rattle Jazz) Recorded in the now defunct and much-loved York Street studios Auckland.  This album is the realisation of a project by Manins, Field, Holland &  photo - Version 2 Samsom.  It sizzles, swings and while hinting at the vibe of a bygone era, it still sounds fresh & modern (and very Kiwi).  ‘Dark Light’ (Rattle Jazz) This excellent album is one of two that Jonathan Crayford released in 2014 – Recorded at ‘Systems Two Studio’ NY with Crayford (piano), Ben Street (bass), Dan Weiss (drums).  Don’t expect repetition from Crayford. This master musician takes us on many journey’s, each unlike the last and all brilliant.  Hip Flask 2 (Rattle Jazz)  A funk unit led by Australasian saxophone giant Roger Manins.  Accompanied by Adam Ponting (piano), Stu Hunter (organ), Brendan Clarke (bass) and Toby Hall (drums).  A thoroughly appealing album and a welcome follow-up to Hip Flask 1 (Hip Flask 1 included with the album).

Best Jazz Writing

The Parker Biography (part one): Stanley Crouch’s ‘Kansas City Lightning’ is a great read and a possible game changer.  It has sometimes been observed that Jazz  Parker Imagebiography is the weakest link in Jazz Writing. If that is true then the mould has truly been broken with this work.  Crouch has placed the story of Parker’s early life into a fuller historical context.  In learning things about the times, we learn a lot about the man.  This is a book that could be appreciated by anyone interested in the history of African-American life in the Mid-West.  I suspect that its significance will grow as time passes.  Above all the book is beautifully written and for me that counts.

 Best Jazz DVD

Charles Lloyd’s ‘Arrows to Infinity’ is a beautiful and informative document. It is packed with important music and astute observations.  The filming is tasteful and painterly and Dorothy Darr (artist and long time partner of Lloyd) has been the obvious guiding force (assisted Jeffery Morse).  Lloyd the musician is beyond caveat, but Lloyd the narrator also holds us in rapt attention.  The reborn, Big Sur Lloyd, communicates his deep calm with ease and his spiritual approach to music and life is compelling.  As he reflects honestly on the momentous times he lived through, we feel enriched by sharing the experience.  He sums up his approach to improvising and the duty of sharing his music as follows; “The winds of grace are always blowing, so set the sails high”.

Most anticipated events for the coming months.

Glen Wagstaff & the Symposium Orchestra Project. (NZ) 2015 album release (subject to sufficient funding levels being reached on kick starter).  This young guitarist references the writing of Kenny Wheeler and Brian Blade.  There is a deep melancholic beauty in his charts and the material soars.  The album features many gifted New Zealand musicians.  Christchurch, like Auckland & Wellington, has a deep reservoir of Jazz talent.

The Auckland Jazz Orchestra (NZ) – ‘Darkly Dreaming Suite’ by AJO conductor Tim Atkinson.  I witnessed the recording of this suite and what I heard sounds amazing. While there is a dark brooding quality of the music it is also strangely warm; like a glass of claret held up to stained glass window at dusk.  The album is due out in 2015 and the work marks step-up for the orchestra.

Maria Schneider conducts the Jazz Mothership Orchestra (USA/Aust) Our highly respected saxophonist Roger Manins is to feature with the JMO under Schneider’s batten. I don’t have all of the information yet, but the JMO will certainly be touring Australia.

CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 2015 events. The club had a great 2014 year in spite of the odds and difficulties. This is in large part due to JJA Jazz-Hero Roger Manins role as musical director (aided and abetted by Caro Manins and Ben McNicoll).  The task of keeping a not-for-profit Jazz Club float in a relatively small city is challenging, but Manins has managed to secure a solid programme and he did so while juggling his demanding teaching gig at the Auckland University Jazz School and his numerous live gigs and recording gigs around the pacific rim.   Having a brand new Auckland Jazz Festival (organised by Ben McNicoll) rounded the years events out perfectly.

Biggest Regrets of 2014 – missing the John Zorn gig in Adelaide – The passing of Kenny Wheeler whose music has given me so much pleasure over the years.

Video clips of Mike Nock & Barney McAll – filmed for this blog at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 2014.

http://youtu.be/zBd2yZZdvL4?list=UUvm6sdXjGJULG9k2nYZ9udA

http://youtu.be/m_oA8iLshNg?list=UUvm6sdXjGJULG9k2nYZ9udA 

 

Jonathan Crayford – ‘Dark Light’ Trio @ CJC #jazzapril

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I attended three Jonathan Crayford gigs while he visited New Zealand.   All of the bands were different and all were exceptional in their way.  This tells me something important about the artist; a leader able to communicate a vision with the utmost clarity and bring out the best in other musicians.  Just over a month ago I interviewed Crayford and my first question was, “What projects do you have in the pipeline?”.  He told me about an album that he is going to record in New York in a few months.  We then talked about ‘Dark Light’, his new ‘Rattle’ album.  As the title implies this is about that mysterious place behind the light.  This recurring theme is regularly mined by improvising musicians.  Monk, Jarrett, Maupin, Towner, Pieranunzi and others have peered into this chiaroscuro world, where the shadows between light and dark reveal subtle wonders.  This piano trio album recorded in New York in late 2013, has the stellar sidemen Ben Street on bass and Dan Weiss on drums.  The album was pre-released to New Zealand audiences during Crayford’s gig on Wednesday which was the fourth of the Creative Jazz Club’s 2014 #jazzapril series.  IMG_0373 - Version 2

I hear a lot of music these days and much of it I like, but occasionally an album comes your way that really stops you in your tracks.  This is just such an album.  It has a profundity and a depth to it that works on so many levels.  It is an album that deserves hearing over and again and since obtaining a copy I have done just that.  At first impression I thought of game changing pianists like Esbjorn Svensson or some of the modern Scandinavians, but this has a strongly original feel.  As in all Crayford’s compositions, we hear a skilfully written head, that gradually evolves into an ever-widening groove, begging deeper exploration.  While it is music played at the highest level it is neither self-indulgent nor introspective.  The album has real depth but it is also incredibly accessible.  This is music that everyone will recognise at some level: partly because it is so articulate, but also because the blues and a myriad of other familiar song forms are neatly distilled into it.

It was obviously not practical to fly Street and Weiss (who are New York based) down for the CJC launch and so Crayford engaged two New Zealand musicians.  While not hearing the full recorded trio was a shame, we were not disappointed by their substitutes.  He could hardly have chosen better.  On bass he had Wellington musician Patrick Bleakley and on drums was Auckland musician Chris O’Connore.   I am less familiar with Bleakley but I certainly know him by reputation.   The last time I saw him was with ‘The Troubles’, a delightfully anarchic Wellington band.  He is an experienced and melodic bass player with an instinctive feel for time.  On the album with Street and with the New Zealand trio, the bass player anchored the pieces; leaving piano and drums to react to each other.  O’Connore is one of the finest drummers on the New Zealand scene and he routinely plays in diverse situations.  This open skies approach gives him a real edge.   He is a drummer and percussionist with a highly developed sense of space and dynamics and in this case his colourist tendencies were strongly in evidence.  IMG_0422 - Version 2

The tracks have an organic logic in the way they’re ordered and a natural ebb and flow is discernible.   The set list at the gig followed that order, creating the sense that we were on a journey.  The titles of the pieces reference the ‘Dark Light’ theme and none more so than ‘Galois Candle’.  Galois was a genius French mathematician (1811 – 1832) who used abstract algebra to prove the links between field theory and group theory.  He suffered unbelievable bad luck in his short life and was not appreciated or understood until the 20th century.  Many of his proofs were accidentally or careless destroyed by others, hence the title.  As I play this sad evocative piece, the story of Galois unfolds before me.  This is what Jazz can do well; steal a moment out of time and create a compelling narrative.

There is a luminous quality to Crayford’s playing; a quality which sounds newly minted and yet familiar.  Crayfords contribution to Jazz deserves wider recognition and with this album it could happen.  I would therefore give the album four and a half stars out of five, not out of some Kiwi patriotism but purely on merit.  No Jazz lover will regret the purchase

I have posted a track titled ‘Bikes in Space’ below.IMG_0430 - Version 2 (2)

Who: Jonathan Crayford (piano) Ben Street (bass *album), Dan Weiss (drums *album) – Patrick Bleakey (bass *CJC), Chris O’Connore (drums, percussion *CJC)

What: ‘Dark Light’ released by Rattle Records http://www.rattlerecords.net 

Where: Pre release CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 23rd April #jazzapril

Jonathan Crayford @ CJC

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Jonathan Crayford has long intrigued me as a musician so I make a point of catching him when the situation presents itself.  He’s an artist embedded so deeply within his music that his persona reflects in those terms.  It’s as if he were the embodiment of sonic shapes and forms.

I have seen him perform on a number occasions but there’s no second guessing what will materialise on any given night.  His experiences in music lead him in many directions and all of them interesting.  While some describe him as genre busting, I think the descriptor is overly simplistic.  I have heard him perform a killing version of, “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” (Bob Dylan).  Yes, he appropriates the sounds about him and often performs with artists from outside of the Jazz spectrum, but at heart he’s an improvising musician.  No matter what notes he plays you can feel the integrity; the perpetual questioning of a deep level interpreter.  IMG_9576 - Version 2

For the CJC gig he showcased a folder of new tunes; the charts interpreted by a six piece band that he had assembled for the gig.  As he explained, “this band is work shopping some new ideas which I will record later in Europe”.  The numbers were all in extended form, giving the musicians space to develop the themes and ideas.   Many of the tunes began and ended with a percussive vamp and as a groove established the horns congas, bass and drums swelled the sound.   The textures and complex layers of sound created an implied centre over which the soloists improvised.  Watching over this was the leader, a benevolent presence who knew just when exhort, when to extend or curtail a solo and when to pull the explorations back to the head.  The tune titles where intriguing also; ‘Groove 21’, ‘Strange Tune’ and others which told a more cerebral story.

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‘Bruno’s Dream’ in particular piqued my interest.  Jonathan Crayford has worked extensively on film scores and his association with the actor/musician Bruno Lawrence gives us the context for this piece.  After Bruno’s passing Jonathan dreamed this tune, a kaleidoscope of images as imagined through Bruno’s eyes.  This is wonderful expansive music and the band entered into the spirit of it.  As with all dreams the evolving and often surreal story has several parts.  In this piece we saw the best of Crayford’s keyboard artistry and writing skills.  There were solid solo performances by Kim Patterson on valve trombone and Finn Scholes on trumpet.  Kim Patterson is the elder statesman here, having recorded over his long career with most of the luminaries of New Zealand Jazz.    The last section of the tune, an intense modal sequence was a gift to Scholes, who grabbed the opportunity with glee mining it convincingly for all it’s worth (echoes of ‘Teo’).  IMG_9494 - Version 2

Early in the second set a brief change in pace occurred, when we heard a duet between Crayford and Patterson.  They performed the only standard of the evening, the gorgeous ‘Old Folks’ (Robison).  It lived up to its heart-string tugging potential.  At the end satisfied sighs were heard from the audience.  Piano and valve trombone work extremely well together and I was briefly minded of the duet recordings between Bob Brookmeyer and others.  IMG_9584 - Version 2

Having both traps drums and congas was integral to the sound as they added heft and edge.   On traps was Julien Dyne, an energetic and multi faceted drummer who has worked previously with Jonathan Crayford ( ‘Pins & Digits’ – Dyne’s album).   On congas (and facing the band) was Miguel Fuentes, a highly experienced percussionist who never flagged during the long and energised grooves.  The remaining band member was Chip Matthews on electric bass.  His presence was integral to the mix and he managed to provide  both an anchor and groove lines without crowding out the others.  The sound scape was dense at times and intentionally so, but the overall momentum was never lost.   With Jonathan Crayford at the helm this is hardly surprising.

The other departure from the format occurred when Jonathan invited Miles Crayford to sit in for a number.   Miles a pianist and keyboardist also, came to wider attention when he participated in Reuben Bradley’s award-winning ‘Resonator’ album.

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If you ask Jonathan Crayford where he lives now you will get vague answers.  He lives where the current project is happening and where the music is.   For the next two month’s he’ll be gigging around New Zealand and then returning to New York to mix and master his next album (with the well-known New York bassist Ben Street and drummer Dan Weiss).  The album is intriguingly named ‘Dark Light’.  Crayford tells me that he wrote the music during a long winter sojourn in London, where the seemingly endless days of low light are commonplace.  Having lived in London I understand this focus with radiating light.  The interplay and intensity of light occupies your thoughts there as it never does in sunnier climes.

If you Google this artist you’ll notice that he’s recorded as ‘currently living’ in Spain or Paris; throw in London and New York and the picture becomes a little clearer.   This is a musician chasing the music and living in the moment.  In Spain he records two solo albums, in New York trios and a sextet and then on to new projects in other cities.   We gladly claim him as an expat Kiwi but in reality he’s a citizen of the world.

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Who: Jonathan Crayford (piano, keyboards, compositions, leader), Kim Patterson (valve trombone, percussion), Finn Scholes (trumpet), Miguel Fuentes (percussion), Chip Matthews (electric bass), Julien Dyne (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland.  19th February 2014

Jonathan Crayford albums (and streamed samples) are available from his website, Rattle or iTunes –  jocray.com