If Alargo had appeared in the year 1644, Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General would have instigated an urgent investigation. Such was the supernatural wizardry and shapeshifting that occurred last Wednesday. On that night we were invited into new sonic worlds and transported beyond the mundane. The event occurred just after the passing of Jon Hassell and that made it especially appropriate. Hassell was a standard bearer for this measured, avant-garde music; and there were others. Eddie Henderson and Miles spring immediately to mind
The point of improvised music is to establish a form and then to craft something afresh. To build, shape and react in the moment, and above all to surprise. Sometimes the surprise comes softly, as a shape is crafted from an unexpected whisper. In the modern world the sources of sound are limitless, but the world is a frenetic and noisy place and we tend to overlook the deeper sounds or the slower journeys.
This particular style of free improvised music takes its time to unfold, and in the process, moments of rare beauty are revealed. However, like all music, it has its structure. It is linear and it ebbs and flows according to the specifics of mood and pulse. Harmonies appear fleetingly then shift or fade. They exist to enhance mood.
While it was technically a duo performance it was more than that. There were two musicians but they spoke in numerous instrumental voices. All of the voices were shaped in real time and shaped on machines both ancient and modern. It was acoustic and electric. It was analogue and digital and it worked well because the musicians understood and exploited the possibilities. It is seldom that you hear the subtler dynamic possibilities explored as effectively as this.
There have been two Alargo albums released to date, and the good news is that another is on the way. This time Rattle is involved and the experimental nature and quality of the music renders it a perfect fit for the label. There were three tunes from Alargo’s Central Plateau album, two from the Primacy album and the rest were either new pieces or those to feature on the up-coming album. I have posted Actopia which is from Central Plateau, the longest piece of the night and a good showcase for this band.
Keyboardist Alan Brown is a popular and celebrated Auckland musician. He is known for his versatility and deep grooves. It was nice to learn that his famous Blue Train band was performing again recently. As co-leader of Alargo Brown played (utilised) 2x iPads (as sound sources) with synths and effects-apps controlled through a MIDI keyboard, he also played an analogue synth, a darbuka drum and a Suzuki Andes recorder keyboard.
Kingsley Melhuish is well known around town as a multi-instrumentalist. He is as likely to pick up a conch shell as a trumpet; vocalise or play reeds and other brass instruments. He is also a noted academic, composer and educator. On this gig he played trumpet, tuba, conch shells, percussion, vocal effects, a Boss Loopstation and iPad for effects.
The Alargo albums are available via alanbrown.co.nz or in stores. Keep an eye on the Rattle releases for the up-coming album.
JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer.Some of these posts appear on related sites.
Eve de Castro-Robinson is Associate Professor of Composition at the University of Auckland. She is well known as a New Zealand classical composer and although widely acknowledged in that field, she is strongly associated with the improvising and experimental music community.Those who attended the CJC Creative Jazz Club last Wednesday witnessed the scope of her compositional output, with compositions interpreted by a plethora of gifted improvisers. The night was a rare treat.Last year de Castro-Robinson released an album titled ‘Gristle of Knuckles’ and on Wednesday we experienced a live performance. When introducing it she explained, ‘although I am described as a contemporary classical composer, I am best placed at the ‘arts’ end of that spectrum’. In this space genres, overlap and artificial barriers are torn down. Out of these collisions comes original and vibrant music.
While de Castro Robinson is primarily seen as a composer, she is also an enabler and a canny collaborator; expanding her vision through skilled pedagogy. The above project has her engaging with colleagues from the UoA Jazz school plus a handful of gifted musicians from the diaspora of the avant-garde. The project comes close to being conduction; guiding the improvisers with a feather-light touch, letting them find their truth as her works are re-imagined.The pieces were composed over a period of years, taking us on a journey from the primal to the avant-garde.
The first set opened with Roger Manins and Ron Samsom playing ‘Doggerel’. A multi-phonic utterance which set the mood. That was followed by a moving ensemble piece featuring Don McGlashan, Kingsley Melhuish, Keith Price, Kevin Field and Ron Samsom titled ‘The Long Dream of Waking’ (a Len Lye poem). That juxtaposition, duo to quintet, worked well, in fact, most of the compositions were quite unlike those preceding them. These contrasts were an integral part of the ebb and flow and the contrasts worked to the advantage of the whole. There was also another factor in play and it was significant. Between numbers, de Castro-Robinson introduced the pieces, not in the usual way but by telling stories. She has a terrific stage presence and while I shouldn’t be surprised by that, I was. Her talk is peppered with wry humour, that understated self-deprecating Kiwi humour. She quickly had us eating out of her hand and although not playing an instrument, was very much a performer herself.
Everything was interesting, everything engaged. ‘Twitch’ featuring Kristian Larsen, a piece for piano (but kinetic and expansively sonic),‘Passion Flower’ played by Kevin Field, a work inspired by a painting and by ‘The March of Women’ composed by the suffragist Ethyl Smyth. The original is a feminist classic but under Fields fingers de Castro-Robinson’s tune it took on a moody reverential feel. Consciously or unconsciously and deep inside the voicings, it captured the mood of another ‘Passionflower’ the Billy Strayhorn masterpiece; a perfect alignment in my view. ConunDRUMS featured Samsom, Melhuish and Larsen, a delightful percussive exploration, a sculpture. ‘Stumbling Trains’ a fiery piece on cello played by Ashley Brown of NZTrio (and co-composed by him). Check out the embed and above all go to the Rattle site and check out Field’s interpretation of ‘Passion Flower’.
The second set opened with ‘Countercurrents’ a solo piece played by alto saxophonist Callum Passells. It began in a stairwell and moved among us, resonating beautifully as the figures and melodies filled the room progressively. ‘Small Blue’ had Field, Melhuish, Price and Samsom paired (a Tuba taking up a bass line), ‘Hau’ featured Mere Boynton on voice and crystal and Melhuish on Taonga Puora. This particular piece was a standout. An ancient-to-modern story of the passing of the spirit and told in a way that evokes New Zealand’s pre-colonial past. I defy anyone to listen to this and not experience a shiver run down the spine.‘Trouble Trouble Mind’ brought McGlashan back to the stage with Boynton, Price and Samsom. With two guitars a backing vocal and a raw bluesy feel, this was prime McGlashan territory. The vibe here hinted at a Dunedin punk sound. Rattle records Steve Garden also took to the stage with an array of vocal sounds on ‘The Gild’ (we often spot him launching a Rattle album but we forget that he is a drummer. His percussive vocalisations added quirky additions to the interactions between Samsom and Larsen).
On the face of it, the gig was a collection of interesting compositions, but it also felt a lot like theatre. However you describe it, it was great performance art and the audience loved it. The album can be purchased from Rattle at Bandcamp (as hard copies or high-quality downloads). The musicians were; Eve de Castro-Robinson (compositions and narration), Don McGlashan (guitar and voice), Kevin Field (piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Ron Samsom (drums and percussion),Kingsley Melhuish (conches, tuba, Tango Puora, tenor horn), Kristian Larsen (piano, live sound, gilded cello), Kieth Price (guitar), Mere Boynton (voice, crystal glass), Steve Garden (sounds), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Ashley Brown (cello).The gig took place at Anthology, K’Road, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 28 August 2019.
Alargo has been around for several years now and Primacy is their second album. The first Alargo album, Central Plateau, was great, but Primacy has that real wow factor. It is a testament to the extraordinary imagination and musicianship of Alan Brown and Kingsley Melhuish. They have created a world just beyond our grasp, but palpable for all that. The idea that two musicians can create such a cornucopia of sound is astonishing. It is divine trickery; it is music that lives everywhere but nowhere; it is quite wonderful.
This fulfils every requirement of a good ambient album: it references many genres and many moods but never overemphasis one aspect over another. It floats and shifts like moments in a dream and above all, it invokes an etherial sensory imagery. The kaleidoscope of patterns may elude the conscious mind but the subconscious mind will form its own associations. This is the philosophy behind ambient music. Perhaps its most valuable attribute is its evanescence, that elusive quality where images fade shortly after they are fixed upon. This is the stuff of quantum physics and of good improvising musicians. This is the essence of Primacy.
The first track opens with a drone which pulses gently. As the modulation shifts the rhythms shift with it – subtly at first, and then as more voices are added you find yourself lost in the journey. This is an Alice like a dreamscape, but there are no bad-tempered queens down this rabbit hole. The sensation of floating is constantly enhanced, as snippets of music come and go; disembodied voices hinting at places as far-flung as the Himalayas, an old European cathedral or the South Pacific; mesmerised we follow. This piece and those after taking you into deep space (or an interior somewhere very much like it). Anyone who enjoyed Kubrick’s ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ will love this. The sound clip I have posted is the first track titled ‘Vocale’.
If you are a fan of ambient improvised music you should rush to grab a copy of Primacy. If you are unsure, then listen to the sample clip, close your eyes and let your imagination guide you. This album is as good as the best of the Nordic Ambient Albums and I’m sure that Manfred Eicher could not have improved on the mixing and mastering. Two Nordic Jazz Musicians visited New Zealand recently and we spoke about artists like Eivind Aarset and Jan Bang. This form of live improvised music is very popular in Scandinavian countries and Jazz audiences are on board with it. I hope that Primacy reaches the European continent. I am certain that it would do very well there.
Kingsley Melhuish features on: vocals, trumpet, Ocarina, Koauau, Tuba, Conch Shells, Percussion, Loops, iOS effects. Alan Brown is on: Keyboards, Synthesizers, Loops, iOS synths/effects. The album is available from Primacy-Alargo-Bandcamp.
The Roberto Magris albums came to my attention some years ago as I have an interest in Italian and Mediterranean Jazz forms. While his albums fall into the straight-ahead Jazz category, a careful listening reveals his strong Mediterranean and Latin influences. His latest album ‘The Roberto Magris Sextet live in Miami’ is his most recent release and it has a distinctly international feel. This is partly down to the classy lineup but more to its edgy Latin-tinged hardbop vibe. Magris is a pianist in the classic mould – wearing his influences on his sleeve and unashamedly so. In interviews and in previous albums he has cited pianists like Horace Silver, Elmo Hope, Duke Jordan and Sonny Clark. He has an abiding fondness for the bop and hardbop swingers but stylistically he incorporates much of his own journey as an Italian pianist. He is extremely well recorded and has been a sideman for luminaries like Kai Winding, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis and Sal Nistico. Of interest to me is his association with the west coast alto saxophonist Herb Geller. Magris is flawless in his articulation of ideas and his albums and his compositions don’t disappoint.
Given the above, it is unsurprising that Magris chose Brian Lynch in a leading role. The American born but outward looking Lynch is a significant presence in the Jazz world and particularly so on Latin projects. He has recorded extensively, has travelled everywhere and is a Grammy-winning artist. His solo’s here are impeccable, and like Magris, he favours a hardbop approach. This gives him an air of real authority.
On tenor saxophone is Jonathan Gomez, on bass (the renowned) Chuck Bergeron, on drums John Yarling and on percussion is Murph Aucamp. Magris is the musical director of a Kansas City based label ‘JMood Records‘ and this album and others can be sourced from there. I have put up a short clip ‘Blues for my sleeping Baby’, which reminds of the earlier East European pianist, Krzysztof Komeda. Magris is from Trieste, a once important free port on the Adriatic; a haven for great poets like Rilke and Joyce and now nestled quietly on the edge of faded empires. I visited there once and loved the place – I will certainly go again and when I do I will endeavour to track down a Magris gig.
This post and all on this site are by John Fenton, a photographer, videographer and professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association.
If you valued social justice and critical thinking, 2016 was confronting. Politically, it was the universe turned on its head. Pre-enlightenment thinking unexpectedly overwhelmed rational thought, barely literate misogynist tweets replaced policy announcements and the media discourse collapsed into alphabet rubble. A constant throughout this mayhem was the focus of the creative sector. Writers still turned out exquisite prose, visual artists like Banksy spoke truth to power and improvising musicians played on. The year may have been chaotic, but good stuff happened in spite of it.
Alargo: During the last few months several recordings and books stood out for me and the first of these was the long anticipated Alan Brown-Kingsley Melhuish ‘Alargo’ album titled ‘Central Plateau‘. I first heard them at the Golden Dawn in Ponsonby Road and loved their atmospheric free-ranging explorations. Their palette is seemingly limitless as the two utilise a variety of instruments, loops and effects (eleven in all). These ranged from the oldest of instruments (Conch shells and horns) to live sampling and a variety of Synthesisers and keyboards.
In these hands, multi layered magic is woven into the mix. This is improvised music in the purist sense and it owes as much to the experimental innovators like Jon Hassell or Terry Riley as to anyone else. For Brown, in particular, the trajectory has been constant. It was inevitable that he should create an EP like this. His last album ‘Silent Observer’ took us deep into ambient territory. Now with the able assistance of the gifted multi instrumentalist Melhuish, a wonderful new soundscape is crafted. Jazz musicians have long played over drones or embraced mood over structural convention (locally, Gianmarco Liguori, Murray McNabb and Kim Paterson were early adaptors).
This is a local variant of the exciting explorations being undertaken by the Nordic ambient improvisers. It is however, a very New Zealand sound, as the sense of space, warmth and terrain evoked could only be ours. Last week I journeyed to the central North Island of Zealand where I spent time on the Desert Road and Central Plateau. I took this album with me and it was the perfect road trip soundtrack. The title of ‘Central Plateau‘ may refer to this particular place or perhaps to an imagined landscape. As I listened to the snow-fed mountain streams, and Tui, I marvelled at how perfectly Brown and Melhuish had captured the vibe. The album is available at alargo.bandcamp.com – in CD form or digitally.In the months before Christmas, we were reeling from the twin body blows of Trump and Brexit. During this period of disbelieving paralysis, Norman Meehan, Paul Dyne and Hayden Chisholm came to town. What they played was a balm for our troubled souls, a sublime ballad gig. I reviewed the gig on November 27, 2016 (this site). A week later Norman Meehan and Tony Whincup launched a new book titled ‘New Zealand Jazz life’. This is a great read for anyone interested in New Zealand music history and a must for anyone interested in improvised music. Meehan’s prose is much like his playing, devoid of needless ornamentation but pleasing. he is a natural with words, but he also manages to impart vast amounts of information without the reader ever feeling force-fed. His interviews with significant New Zealand improvising musicians are carefully blended with personal observation. Musicians like Jim Langabeer, Lucian Johnson, Nathan Haines, Kim Paterson, Jeff Henderson, Anthony Donaldson, Frank Gibson jr and Roger Manins are featured. I highly recommend this book as a vital reference work and as a very good read. ‘New Zealand Jazz Life‘ is published by Victoria University Press and available at all good bookstores.
Most Anticipated Albums 2017 –
Manins, Samsom, Holland, Field are rumoured to be recording a new ‘DOG‘ album. If it is anything like DOG one, we can expect a wonderful album. In December the band performed at the Thirsty Dog, and on all indications this will be a contender for another Jazz Tui. The band is simply extraordinary and it is impossible to fault them. ‘DOG’ is renown for showcasing great compositions, superb musicianship and for generating joyous excitement.
Meehan, Chisholm and Dyne have also finished recording and the album will be released sometime this year. Anyone who heard them on tour will certainly want the album. I will keep you posted on that.
I spent the northern Autumn travelling extensively throughout Europe and on the return journey I stopped off in San Francisco. Along the way I collected ‘found’ poetry. My self-imposed task was to record any poem (or fragment of a poem) scrawled on a wall or pavement, or in a street handout. These stumbled-upon poets were often unknown to me and this personalised anthology is the perfect trip reminder. As I moved from city to train, my bags become increasingly heavy with volumes of verse. In Gdansk, North Eastern Poland, I discovered the Nobel Prize winning poet Wislawa Szymborska. Her Maps‘ anthology has seldom been out of my hands since. Szymborska communicates the Polish experience like few others. She evokes a sense of impermanence, an un-belonging that has characterised Polish life for millennia. I am descended from Pomeranian Polish stock and perhaps this adds a particular resonance in my case. This is a window into a floating world surprisingly free of rancour. ‘Maps’ in translation is published by Mariner Books.The City Lights book shop in North Beach San Francisco has always been at the centre of my universe. Whenever I’m in that wonderful city I head there immediately. I had just spotted a verse from a Diane di Prima poem in a street pamphlet and I couldn’t wait to get a volume or two of her poetry. I have long been familiar with di Prima’s work, but the gifted female Beat poets were unfairly eclipsed by their male counterparts. A book published by Conari Press titled ‘Women of the Beat Generation’ is now back in print and it’s a good starting point for examining their body of work. di Prima is still with us and some of her best work is contained in a recent volume titled ‘The Poetry Prize’ published by the City Lights Foundation. Lastly I will post one of my own recent poems, which rounds off the theme of maps. I wrote this in the week before my journey began. As I was about to depart, a well-known New Zealand Jazz musician shared some travel tips with me, offering insights, drawing me an abstract map as guide. I was so pleased with it that I wrote this poem. I took his wonderful map with me and although I was unable to strictly follow it’s path, the spirit of it was an inner compass to guide me. It made me happy to have it near – now a prized possession, a travel memory, a manifest.
This week my copy of John McLoughlin’s ‘Black Light’ arrived (ARI X 050). A vibrant stream of groove fused with ancient oriental sources. All transformed utterly. Talas sounding like rap, deep groove and the reflective fusing with virtuosic Jazz bravura. In McLoughlin’s hands stylistic purity is a will of the wisp. Every note is fresh; past, present and future rolled into one. I feel the same way about ‘Dream Logic’ by Eivind Aaset and ‘Cartography’ by Arve Henriksen (both on ECM). Superficially the Mcloughlin album is a lot busier than the Aaset or the Henriksen but there are strong threads of commonality. Both draw on deep wells of music, shaping sounds derived from primal and untapped sources in equal parts.
All musical styles originate from another place. If music stands still it risks becoming a museum piece and whether it’s Mozart, Lennon, Bartok, Ayler or Miles Davis the influences are there. Forward looking musicians comprehend this instinctively and explore the vastness of sonic possibilities; knowing that musical innovation comes from open-minded exploration. Innovation never emerges from stasis. When people confine an improvised music like Jazz to a particular style or era they miss the point. Jazz like Latin music or Flamenco is a spicy fusion of rich influences. As older familiar tributaries recede to a trickle, new ones flow; filling the space. It is an immutable law of nature and of improvised music.
In the improvisers hands, nothing should survive unscathed because improvisers are shape shifters. They pirate, parody, transmute, transcend and remake. From older forms come newer forms; sometimes as illusive as silence. This artistic alchemy does not imply a lack of reverence for the past, it is the reverse. Finding new ways of interpreting the world is the highest calling of any artist and no matter what the change the DNA is never lost.
Four years ago happenstance led me to the Nordic improvising minimalists and the fascinating influences that inspired them. There are threads connecting these artists and these run in interesting and often unexpected ways. The ‘Eastern influence’ is an obvious source but there are so many more. Following the 1950’s recordings of Miles and Coltrane either playing over a drone or utilising other scales (like the Phrygian mode), new grooves entered the mainstream Jazz lexicon.
The musicians influenced by Kind of Blue are legion, but the connections are not always obvious. The Byrds, Beatles, Animals, Stones and the Who all made use of modal scales post Kind of Blue. I was surprised to read that U2 claimed that album as a prime influence. Terry Riley is an important figure in the minimalist school and he makes no bones about the effect of Coltrane and Kind of Blue on his thinking. Riley’s ‘In C’ was composed before the term minimalism and his stunning ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’ took improvised minimalism to a new place. In the late 60’s the serialist trumpeter Jon Hassell met Riley and soon after they studied under the Indian master singer Pundit Pran Nath. Their increased awareness of what is now referred to as World Music became an added factor in their musical development. Along with Riley, Hassell experimented with electronics.
Later both Riley and Hassell worked with Brian Eno and David Sylvian (ECM’s Manfred Eicher was paying attention). Eno credits Hassell with shifting his perspective considerably. Both coming out of experimental traditions and both unafraid of fusing lesser known ‘world’ musics with electronic music. Out of these discussions arose the concept of ‘Fourth World Music’ and ‘Coffee Coloured Music’ (World Music was not a common term at that time). Eno is a major figure in experimental Rock and World Music having collaborated extensively with David Bowie, Roxy Music and others.
The Nordic Improvisers are the most interesting development for Jazz audiences. Perhaps due to the influence of Jon Hassell, an incredibly strong Ambient trumpet tradition has developed in countries like Norway. Arve Henriksen, Nils Petter Molvaer and Matthias Eik. Eik is less associated with the Ambient improvisers, but his soft rich and at times flute-like sound places him in their ambit. The leading Experimental/Jazz/Electronica ambient improvisers are Eivind Aaset (guitars, programming), Jan Bang (live sampling, Beats, programming, bass), Erik Honore (synthesiser, Live field recording, samples), Arve Henriksen (Trumpets, field recording, voice) Lars Danielson (bass), Sidsel Endresen, (voice), Nils Petter Molvaer (trumpet) and Bugge Wesseltoft (piano, keyboards, electronics). Into this mix add a number of leading European, American and especially British Jazz and avant-garde experimenters like David Sylvian (voice, Programming,samples).
New Zealand Jazz has a foot in this camp with the fine work by Alan Brown on ‘Silent Observer’. Also Browns work with Kingsley Melhuish (‘Alargo’). To that I would add the experimental work of the Korean based kiwi improvising musician John Bell. The local offerings are as good as anything on offer elsewhere. We should trust ourselves to listen rather than struggle with genres. Too much time is spent worrying about definitions. This is ambient but it is not elevator music. It is a music of profound subtlety and if you relax into it, the grooves and pulses will take you deep inside. This is profound music that understands space and utilises silence. In Eno’s words, “an emphasis on atmosphere and tone replaces that of rhythm and melody”. This is a music that rewards careful listening and it goes where it wants without being time bound. Above all it engages the senses in new ways – it is utterly filmic in quality. I highly recommend Eivind Aaset’s Dream Logic on ECM as a starting point. I will keep you posted on New Zealand developments.
The Clips: Terry Riley, ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air 1969’ – Arve Henriksen, ‘Recording Angel’ from ‘Dream Logic’ (ECM) – Jan Bang, ‘Passport Control’ from ‘And Poppies from Kandahar’ (Samadhi Music) – ‘Alargo’ live are Alan Brown/Kingsley Melhuish – Gaya Day is by John Bell.
Sources: (Eno interview) The debt I owe to Jon Hassell – The Guardian. The Blue Moment – Richard Williams (Faber & Faber).
By the time the second week of the Auckland Jazz Festival arrived, I began to feel my age. I had already experienced a number of late night gigs and a further week of music stretched ahead of me. This was no time to flag, as some interesting and innovative music lay ahead. The festival programme structure provided audiences with variety. The depth and breadth of the improvising scene was on show and I wanted to see everything possible. The week started well with the Meehan/Griffin/Manhire poetry project (see earlier review for this). That gig brought a new audience and I was still buzzing come Tuesday.
On Tuesday night the AJO (Auckland Jazz Orchestra) shoehorned into the CJC for the release of their ‘Darkly Dreaming‘ album. The AJO have a growing fan base and this was an eagerly anticipated event. Having earlier witnessed the actual recording session and a pre-taste performance of the suite, I was happily expectant. With charts as demanding as this, a thoroughly rehearsed band is essential and I knew that they would be. It was clear that this would be the definitive live performance so I couldn’t wait to hear that first swell of sound and to get my hands on the album. I had volunteered for door duty that night, turning up early to help. I enjoy the Jazz orchestra set-up process – in this case nineteen musicians and a conductor configuring a behemoth in an impossibly small space. It was like witnessing Nasa scientists beginning the launch sequence. Instruments and gauges checked, tapped and rechecked, cabling run out; each adding a layer to the criss-cross tangle of shoes, stands and chairs. Soon there were rows of brassy instruments standing in an (almost) orderly line, with the odd human interloper spoiling their symmetry. Random buzzing sounds came from warming up lips; and all punctuated with honks and plucked notes from far-flung corners of the room. this is the counterfactual of the sounds that follow. Band leader Tim Atkinson composed and arranged the suite. He has carefully shaped this ground breaking project as befitting a work of this importance. This is a modern piece of music in the mould of Darcy James Argue. Richly textured, evocative of the title and especially in the warm multi layered dissonance that swells out of the quieter passages. The work has captured a mood and an orchestra going places. This is a moment which benchmarks the growing maturity of the Auckland Jazz scene and I am truly glad to have witnessed it. The overall performance on the night was flawless, but if anyone stood out it was altoist Callum Passels. His solo on ‘The Dark Passenger’ was wonderful. it was a feat of story telling, of mood and it oozed freedom – as if he had somehow escaped the confines of room and orchestra. Importantly, he managed this without once deviating from the logic of the composition. I urge people to purchase this album and I guarantee that you will play it over and again. On Wednesday I spent time with the Benny Lackner Trio. A popular USA/German (French) trio who seldom passed up an opportunity to playfully ambush each other and often along the lines of nationality. Their mock combative banter acting as a counterweight to the cohesion they showed on the bandstand. I have seen this trio three times as they have a long association with New Zealand. In my view they are the true successor to Sweden’s lost lamented EST, but there is more to them besides. Their approach is similar but additional elements inform their music. The influence of Lacker’s former teacher Brad Mehldau is discernible but the band is forging a new sound. This is the confident face of post millennium European Jazz. Never compromising, unafraid to appropriate elements from their native culture, and done without a hint of self-consciousness. These guys are heavyweights and we are bound to hear a lot more of them in years to come. The trio’s set list was a mix or originals and some very interesting covers. What was not composed by Lackner or by the drummer Chazarenc, were often unexpected tunes; Brahms, Cold Play, David Bowie, Rodriguez and Jimmy Hendrix. ‘If Six were Nine’ was simply stunning. Warmly familiar to those of us who remembered the rock original. Taking the bones of a 1960’s tune and infusing it with edgy lines and modern harmonic conceptions. I have long-held the view that the new standards will come from material exactly like this. None of the band were alive when this acid blues classic was cut in 1969, but their joy at performing it was evident. Jimi would have loved it. The bass player on this trip was Bruno Schorpe. When offered an upright bass he declined – choosing to remain on electric bass throughout. I’m glad that he did because the instrument had the bite to act as counterweight. Balancing out well the electronics and various effects of Lackner’s keyboards. Then there was drummer Matthieu Chazarenc. He has accompanied Lackner on previous trips and to my ears he is directly out of a great tradition. French Jazz drummers have a sound that is distinct. Like many of his compatriots Chazarenc’s sound is crisp, even dry; utilising dynamics in ways that younger drummers are often incapable of. A label like ACT must surely pick the trio up sometime soon. They would be a perfect fit – much as they would for ECM.
Thursday brought us ‘The JAC‘ from Wellington. A delightful octet shortlisted in the 2015 New Zealand Jazz awards for their ‘Nerve’ album. This project is clearly one that will remain with us for some time and if any band deserves to become an institution it is this one. A brassy octet with an orchestral yet airy sound and one which I am particularly enthusiastic about. This was the release gig for their newest album.
‘The Green Room‘ (out on Rattle.) Rattle has an uncanny Knack of locating the best of new Zealand music and presenting it in ways that even the big labels seldom manage. The album is beautifully recorded and live the JAC simply sparkle as they weave texture and into their shape shifting grooves. In many ways it is a band of equals as almost everyone stands out at some point. While there is an incredible tightness to their performance, they manage to loosen up enough to create rub and textural complexity. It is almost overkill to single out soloists with a cohesive group like this as every one is notable in some way or another. Altoist Jake Baxendale is their nominal leader and three of the compositions on the album are attributed to him (including the title track). If any number captures the essence of the group it is this. The solo on his tune Andalucia also captures a strong sense of place. I know Andalucia well and this is a convincing testimony.
It is hard to know where to start with Callum Allardice; he grows as a musician every time I hear him. His compositions are stunning and his guitar work so fluid and exciting that it defies belief. These are performances that stop you in your tracks and few New Zealand guitarists capture that particular sound. Lex French is another spectacular performer and we would hardly expect otherwise. He is now the leading local voice on that horn. Perhaps the most experienced player is Nick tipping who never puts a foot wrong. On the new album we hear him at his best. Convincing contributions by the likes of Chris Buckland, Matthew Alison and Shaun Anderson reinforce the view that this is an all-star band. Lastly there is pianist Daniel Milward. He has recently moved to Melbourne and his voice is particularly strong on the recording; more so than on the first album. Not a showy pianist but an extremely tasteful one who gets it just right. I have put up a sound clip of the Allardice Composition ‘The Heist’, as I have loved it since first hearing it (probably at the Tauranga Jazz Festival).
On the 24th I attended another Rattle Jazz album release. This time at the Auckland University Jazz School in the Kenneth Meyers Centre. The Chris Mason Battley Group were performing the album DIALOGOS; this arising from the music of celebrated New Zealand composer John Psathas. The project is exciting and while very much in the moment, a careful crafting is evident. If that sounds like a contradiction it is not. Improvised music is forever reaching beyond imposed structural limitations; the boundaries of convention. Without that restless outreach the music would wither on the vine. This is an example of the new music that you might find on ECM (or Rattle), it is minimalist and references the ethos of John Cage or perhaps even Zorn; it reaches the outer limits of the known. In Psathas words, “it is not arranging or adapting…(rather) a continuing of the composing process”. There are works or arrangements which re-imagine and examine a work from an outside perspective. That is not the case here. This is part of a developing story and the Psathas vision remains at its heart. I recently read a trilogy by a famous and highly respected author. He had intended to write a fourth volume but died before he could proceed. A year later another author picked up where the original author left off and achieved something extremely rare. He added to the body of work seamlessly; continuing the narrative in ways that were his own and entirely consistent with the original. Although a more serious work, DIAGOLOS was an unmitigated triumph. Mason-Battley is a thoughtful gifted musician, but we don’t see him perform about town very often. Any new project gets his undivided attention and that was the case here. Counter intuitively, it is his careful preparation which affords him the extraordinary freedom he demonstrates on the bandstand. During this performance he took us right to the edge; you gained the sense listening that he was pushing himself a little further with each phrase. It is at times like this that great music emerges. While adventurous with electronics, he evokes a classic Coltrane sound on his Soprano. There are a number of local musicians who double on soprano but few (if any) sound like Battley. The Chris Mason-Battley Group has been around for some time and the original group set New Zealand records for the number of downloads and albums purchased. For this project core members David Lines, Sam Giles and Mason-Battley remain with the addition of drummer Stephen Thomas. Unlike earlier configurations, there is no guitar. Bringing Thomas into the mix has worked extremely well. The drummer of choice for many gigs and a gifted percussionist in the fullest sense. Psathas music calls for sensitive drum work and Thomas has exactly the right approach. His understanding of subtle dynamics, time awareness and overall sensitivity to the project were very much on display. I also appreciated David Lines piano. Lines early classical training was evident in places and again this made him a very good choice for the project. The work required a pianist with a particular chordal approach. At times he was minimalist and with a particular approach to voice leading. Lines like the other four were indispensable to the project. Lastly there was Sam Giles – an electric bass player I wish I heard more often. Giles often leans towards the avant-garde and innovative projects. That is where he shines. The Last Auckland Jazz Festival gig I attended was the Alan Brown/Kingsley Melhuish Alargo project at the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn is the perfect place to wind down and a very good place to hear laid back grooves and experience deliciously exotic ambient adventures. This music creates a world we wished we lived in. A world of exotic grooves and shifting realities. Seeing and hearing is believing with Alargo, their sound as wide as the ocean and as deep (a little songbook reference there). What Brown and Melhuish are crafting is terrific. Sound shaped, altered, looped and all guiding you inexorably toward that fantasy world of improvised/groove Jazz/electronica. As wonderful as it is to watch, it is essentially a place in which to abandon yourself. As you dive in you feel the buffeting of warm grooves all about you, as the tiredness of a busy fortnight evaporates. I thought that I was an early discoverer of improvised ambient music but Brown was way ahead of me. We have often discussed this genre and we see it as a local space worth claiming. Melhuish was always going to end up beside Brown on this project; trumpet, pedals, programming, percussion and shells swimming around the keyboards. An otherworldly magic evoked by Browns deft fingers. I like to think that I gave this music a slight nudge along the way. This has been an interesting Jazz Festival and although it is cliched, there was something for everyone. From manouche through to the avant-garde. I loved that it retained the feeling of local and of intimacy – even when showcasing offshore bands. The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Rattle Records, 1885 Britomart, Auckland University, Golden Dawn, Portland Public House, Hallertau, Ostro, Lot 23, One2One, Hotel DeBrett, Lewis Eady, The Refreshment Room, the Vic, The Wine Cellar and other venues deserve our heartfelt thanks. Above all its Ben McNicoll who we must acknowledge as he lost sleep and carried the heaviest load. We are also in the debt of Caro and Roger Manins for the part they played. The vision belongs to these innovators and what ever happens along the way, I hope that the Auckland Jazz Festival continues as the fine fringe festival they envisioned.
I often detect a unique quality in New Zealand improvised music, but when it comes to defining it, the illusive essence dissolves before I can grab hold. ‘Harry Himself’ has brought me one step closer, connecting me with a tangible manifestation. This band is the perfect example of improvised ‘Kiwiana’. At first hearing you detect a melange of the familiar; elements of World, Fusion, Straight ahead, Post bop, Post millennial Jazz and all served up with a generous dollop of classic country. Listen more closely and you will get strong South Sea references, flashes of musical memory permeating every bar. Everything from Bill Sevesi to the ancient sounds of New Zealand indigenous music. Even song titles revolve around Kiwiana themes . Many of the tunes belong to a place, to the Islands we live on and to the immense swath of sea that surrounds it. Like the harbours and oceans that surround us, this is a mosaic of glittering fragments. A familiar yet unknown music to gladden the heart. Above all this is a good-natured band, oozing charm and character. The array of instruments and the judicious use of loops and pedals more than doubles their range. The only constant in the sounds are the six string bass and drums. The leader Kingsley Melhuish is sometimes seen in the company of adventurous avant-gardists. He can also be found among the free ranging Ponsonby Road improvising bands. His use of pedals and loops is tasteful and it serves the music not a whim. His pedal effects and electronics are not added randomly, nor for the sake of it. He is an accomplished horn player, switching seamlessly between trumpet, flugelhorn, tuba, trombone and lately, a vast array of conch shells. Melhuish often sets up loops and then he plays over them with different horns. This layering of sound is achieved well and the real-time harmonic overlay enables him to add considerable texture and breadth. Neil Watson does likewise, as he frequently moves between Fender guitar and pedal steel guitar. The day after the gig I called into the MAINZ recording studio to grab a few shots of the group laying down an album. I overheard the recording technician asking the band after a take, “How do you feel that went; do you want to listen before moving on”? Immediately a voice came from the studio speaker, “No, I think we’ll do that one again. The Fender and the conch will work better together than the pedal steel on this track”. A huge smile crossed the technicians face, “I’ve never heard that said in a studio before” he said. They were right and it reinforced a long-held view of mine; that no instrument is beyond the reach of Jazz and that no sound should remain un-pillaged. I always appreciate Sam Giles electric bass playing and I am always left with the feeling that he is scandalously under-utilised. Solid and groove based was what the band needed and solid and groove based was what they got. On drums was premier drummer Ron Samsom. He worked these beats like he always does, purposefully, skilfully and making it look second nature. I’m glad the band is recording this material and I have a feeling that the album could grow legs with the right exposure. I hope so, they are fun. I have added two video clips of the band, which demonstrate the diversity of their material. While diverse, it never-the-less hangs together nicely. The fist clip is ‘Cy’s Eyes’ a tune composed for one of Melhuish’s children. The second tune is the wilder freer ‘Zornithology’. A tribute to John Zorn (with an obvious play on the title of a Bird tune). There was one tune I wish I’d captured on video and that was ‘Rose Selavy’ by Enrico Rava. Man, what a hard-edged powerhouse romp that was.
Who: ‘Harry Himself‘ is Kingsley Melhuish (trumpet, flugel, tuba, trombone, conch’s), Neil Watson (Fender guitar, Pedal Steel guitar), Sam Giles (six string e-bass), Ron Samsom (drums).
‘Troubles’ come in many forms and what a proliferation of ‘Troubles’ we have seen in Auckland. In mid 2012 we saw a nonet replete with a sizeable string section (and clarinet). Earlier this year at the Auckland Jazz Festival we saw a septet (strings, no clarinet and with Roger Manins on tenor saxophone as guest artist). By Wednesday December 10th 2014 all trace of rosin was purged and the sweet sounds and fresh faces of the front line string section replaced by three tall bearded men clutching saxophones (and a shorter clean-shaven trumpeter). This was a bold and brassy line up; a weightier manifestation, delivering anarchic messages from darker corners. This was too good an opportunity not to record and Rattle did just that. Capturing chordal instruments in a space like the CJC is challenging as the sound has a number of hard edges to bounce off. Recording a live performance of this particular brand of ‘Troubles’ might work well. Guiding the proceedings with his well-known brand of anti-establishment megaphone diplomacy was ring master John Rae, ‘Troubles’ co-founder. He shepherded the ensemble through a constantly shifting landscape. His effervescent flow of joyous and often irreverent cries only stemmed by Patrick Bleakley’s timely interjections. Rae is the supercharged engine room, but Bleakley is clearly the anchor. Like Rae he’s an original member. With this Auckland horn section in place, a new front had opened and the tweaked charts took maximum advantage of that. On baritone was Ben McNicoll and his presence gave the sound added bottom. Roger Manins, who had stunned us with his wild death-defying solo’s at the Troubles Portland Public House gig was on tenor again. Jeff Henderson took the alto spot and that was a significant addition. His ultra powerful unblinking delivery was the x-factor. Unafraid of repeated motifs but able to negotiate the music without ever resorting to the familiar. That is the Henderson brand, original clear-cut and uncompromising. In no way diminished by the powerful reed instruments surrounding him was Kingsley Melhuish on trumpet. Melhuish has a rich burnished sound and like the others, he is no stranger to musical risk taking. Together they evoked a spirit close to the earlier manifestations of the Liberation Jazz Orchestra. Not just the rich and at times delightfully ragged sound, but the cheerful defiance of convention and discarding of political niceties. Rae’s introductions were gems and I hope some of them survive in the recording. He told the audience that it had been a difficult year for him. “It was tough experiencing two elections in as many months and in both cases the got it woefully wrong” (referring to the Scottish referendum and the recent New Zealand Parliamentary elections). “there are winners and losers in politics and there are many assholes”. It wouldn’t be the ‘Troubles’ if there wasn’t a distinct nod to some of the worlds trouble spots or to political events that confound us. I have chosen a clip ‘Arab Spring Roll’ (John Rae), a title which speaks for itself. Following the establishment of a compelling ostinato bass line, the musicians build a convincing modal bridge to the freedom which follows. Chaotic freedom is the perfect metaphor for the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising. The last number performed was the ANC National anthem and as it concluded, fists rose in remembrance of the anti-apartheid struggle. It is right that we should celebrate the struggles for equality, but sobering to reflect on how far we have to go. The Troubles keep our feet to the flame, while gifting us the best in musical enjoyment.
What: ‘The Troubles‘ – John Rae (drums, compositions, exaltation), Patrick Bleakley (bass, vocal responses), with Roger Manins (tenor sax), Jeff Henderson (alto sax), Ben McNicholl (baritone sax), Kingsley Melhuish (trumpet, Trombone).