Audio Foundation, Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, experimental improvised music

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.

 

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CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, Review

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.

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, experimental improvised music, Fusion & World

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.

 

 

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, vocal

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

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Straight ahead, vocal

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).

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

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.

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

Jonathan Crayford – Making Pianos Sing

Jonathan Crayford Interview  (part one)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Part Two of this post to be posted later)

Who: Jonathan Crayford (piano) – guest Roger manins

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

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