Mireya Ramos was an unexpected musical treat because our borders, with very few exceptions, have been long closed to all but Kiwi returnees (and most recently Australian tourists). Ramos is from New York. Very few international musicians have managed to cross the border, and only if they obtained an exemption and subjected themselves to a strict quarantine.
With the Australian Bubble just opened I assumed that Ramos must have come from Australia, but in fact, she arrived here with her acclaimed Flor de Toloache all-female Mariachi styled band to perform at WOMAD 2020. Within days of arrival, the borders had closed behind her. For many pre-lockdown international visitors, the border closure proved to be a silver lining as visas were extended and they could avoid the horrors unfolding elsewhere in the world.
Mireya Ramos is a multi Grammy-nominated (and winning) artist and although the rest of her all-female mariachi band members returned home, she and her partner Andy Averbuch did what creatives do best, they got busy. During the year she has recorded and toured the country and her gigs have attracted enthusiastic audiences everywhere. Her CJC gig featured a variety of Latin and Central American styles with the addition of popular standards.
Her music draws on many genres, but all coloured by a stylistic uniqueness. She is both a vocalist and a violinist and that appealed as well. The violin is not unknown in improvised music, but sadly it is still uncommon. I am fond of the violin in Jazz and Jazz fusion styles and particularly so with Argentinean music.
Listening Jazz audiences are always eager to hear traditional and blended South American music. A good example was the version of ‘Fever’ which morphed into an Afro-Cuban groove. Of all the tunes, that appealed to me the most. It is not often that we get to hear the many and varied Latin styles and whenever we do, we are left wanting more.
Guitarist Andy Averbuch and Bass player Alex Griffith had opportunities to stretch out during solos and they made the most of that, but when Dr Mark Baynes and Lance Bentley locked into a Clave, the magic happened. Ramos has been received enthusiastically in New Zealand and after the pandemic recedes, I am sure that she will be encouraged to return. The band: Mireya Ramos (vocals @ violin), Andy Averbuch (guitar), Dr Mark Baynes (piano, keys), Alex Griffith (bass), Lance Bently (drums).
JazzLocal32.com was 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.
With 2020 nearly done, the penultimate gig at the CJC was an optimistic signpost; signalling hope and possibility. After a long and turbulent year, the music had bounced back better than ever and in spite of the obstacles along the way new energies were flowing. In amongst the offerings from our up-and-coming artists were gigs and albums by our finest. Last Wednesday’s Dixon Nacey Band and the release of Kevin Field’s ‘Soundtology’, stand out as musical high points. In a year of plague and pestilence, the music only grew stronger. There is a thing about genuine creatives; when the bats start to circle, they work with the chaos and create better. Dixon Nacey is very much in that category; what an extraordinary musician.
Nacey appeared this time, with the same lineup that accompanied him on his Tui award-winning ‘Edge of Chaos’ album. There were numbers from the album, plus a few new tunes. In addition, he played a blues and two arrangements of Pat Metheny tunes which delighted everyone. I had missed his Ponsonby Road Metheny gig, which everyone who attended, raved about for weeks afterwards.
Nacey is a musician who keeps moving forward, and with each passing year, he reaches new heights. He is less inclined these days to rely on pedals and an uncluttered spaciousness is evident in many of his compositions. What he has absorbed has now been internalised, so there is no over-thinking, and out of that comes clarity and a cleaner sound. This enables him to say more and to give deeper meaning to the notes and phrases and underlying everything is some great writing. Playing like this demonstrates the best features of his Godin guitar, which in return, reveals its best self. The tune above is a recent Nacey composition. New Zealand Jazz at its finest.
The band were superb and the tricky unison lines were executed well. Roger Manins is an excellent reader, and you could not have slid a cigarette paper between his and Nacey’s lines in the head arrangements. And behind those, adding fills or comping unobtrusively was Kevin Field. Responding exactly as he should and consequently giving the music a floating quality. There were rhythmic complexities on many of the numbers, but because they were navigated so well, they were rendered as easy. One or two pieces came close to being a shuffle beat, but not quite. This was a layered sound and the complexity of the overlaying time signatures needed skilled craftsman to make them fit properly. The reason it held together so well was down to Oli Holland on bass and Andy Keegan on drums. This is how a tight unit should function. What we got was a superb night of engaging music and it brought us end-of-year joy.
Dixon Nacey: guitar, arrangements, compositions – Roger Manins : tenor saxophone – Kevin Field: piano – Olivier Holland : bass – Andy Keegan : drums
The gig took place at Anthology K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, December 9, 2020
JazzLocal32.com was 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.Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz – check it out.
Umar Zakaria is an easy-going soul, but on the bandstand, he is a sonic warrior. He evokes a Mingus like presence with his powerful resonating bass lines; pushing, urging, as he rides the momentum. Although he was situated behind the horn line, his presence was palpable. You could see him dancing in the shadows, as his bass moved frenetically, and your ears took you straight to the nexus of fingers and strings.
It is good to see that a band arising from Zakaria’s award-winning Fearless Music album survives. The album was marvellous and I would urge anyone who has not checked it out to do so. It brought a new perspective to New Zealand’s Jazz scene and one which we embraced. The album won the 2018 Jazz Tui against some very stiff opposition and deservedly so. It was a showcase for Zakaria’s compelling compositions, which drew upon the music of his Malaysian roots. It was a quartet featuring Roger Manins, Leo Coghini and Luther Hunt.
The current Fearless Music Collective has an expanded lineup. This time, there was a four-piece horn-line and that opened up new possibilities. Zakaria’s arrangements, in particular, were impressive, as the players were given room to interact organically. It was nowhere more evident than on ‘Deadline’ with its textural qualities and interwoven communicability. It kept to a simple theme but told a big story. It was slick and appealing, but with a controlled raggedness that you usually find in a New Orleans street-band (or in a Mingus ensemble).
The over-arching kaupapa of any collective is to provide a vehicle for its members to contribute, and they did. The compositions were varied in nature and often quirky, like the trombone players ’See You on the Launchpad’. Others were more reflective like Zakaria’s ‘100 Homes’, evoking the impermanence of his student years. Apart from the leader’s tunes, I was impressed by the pianist’s tune ‘Well Kept’, and the trumpeter’s titled ‘Freight Train’. The latter was a recreation of the trumpet led Hard-Bop era and it crackled with life. It is good to see young trumpet and trombone players coming through. Compared to Australia, New Zealand has lagged behind.
Throughout, however, it was the powerful presence of the bass which guided and spoke from the music’s heart. It was not that the bass overwhelmed, but that it spoke with such authoritative clarity. It was obviously a bass players band, and no one would wish it otherwise. The album can be sourced from https://www.umarzakaria.com or purchased from NZ retail outlets.
The Fearless Music Collective: Umar Zakaria (bass), George McLaurin (piano), James Guilford (trumpet), Martin Greshoff (trombone), Nicholas Baucke-Maunsell (alto saxophone), Aiden McCulloch (tenor saxophone), James Feekes (drums).
The gig took place at Anthology K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, December 9, 2020JazzLocal32.com was 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.Many of these posts also appear on Radio13
Kômanawa is a duo, and duos are seldom heard in the bigger Jazz clubs. The gig was billed as a first for the CJC, but what of ‘Showa 44’ I thought? That was an Australian duo featuring Carl Dewhurst & Simon Barker, so I checked back, and although Showa 44 was a duo, they had included Roger Manins as guest. So yes, Kõmanawa was a first.
There is a unique kind of intimacy to a Jazz duo performance and it is quite unlike other configurations. It is a fluid conversation between equals and in that regard Chrystal Choi and Michael Howell were well matched. They may have different styles, but they are both attentive listeners and they showed respect for each other’s musical space.
Over the years there have been plenty of fabulous Jazz duos and the best of the duo albums remain perennially popular: Charley Haden & Pat Metheny, (also Haden with Hank Jones or Kenny Barron), Bill Evans & Jim Hall, and my favourite, Carla Bley & Steve Swallow. The Jazz duo is a unique form and especially suited to nuanced musical conversations. Out of that a skillful interplay arises. People took particular note when Evans cut the two albums with Hall, because a piano and guitar can all too easily occupy the same register and get in each-others way.
All of the above had been assimilated by this duo and they wove around each other with care. Their performance was also warm and engaging, and as they played, you felt like you were eavesdropping on an intimate conversation. That is how a duo performance works best, avoiding any fireworks, and by modulating showiness. The audience got that and paid close attention.
While both musicians contributed tunes, the majority were from Choi. I was so engaged that I failed to notice that I had not switched on the external camera mic. The absence of the small green light dawned on me just before the end of the gig and the tune that I most wanted to post is recorded as a well-choreographed silent movie. The tune in question was titled ‘Playground Song’ (Choi) and it swung softly like a Carla Bley/Swallow tune. You will have to take my word for that, but it really did. There is an EP or an LP waiting to happen here, and I hope that they record this material. I captured only one tune, the second to last tune. It is an arrangement of a tune that Choi wrote for her Indie pop group.
Throughout, Choi moved between the piano and vintage Wurlitzer, Howell sometimes used a slide and produced wonderfully atmospheric sounds. The gig took place at the Creative Jazz Club, Anthology, November 18, 2020.
JazzLocal32.com was 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.Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz – check it out.
With closed borders and venue restrictions biting, the release date for Kevin Field’s ‘Soundtology’ album became a movable feast. The original proposal would have seen some of his New York band appear, but because of the pandemic, that plan was ditched. If he was flustered by these frustrating circumstances it didn’t show. Making a virtue out of necessity he engaged local musicians and launched his album anyway. It was a night to remember.
Field is one of our finest musicians and his reputation stretches far beyond these shores. He has previously recorded with highly-rated New York Jazz musicians and also with the best of New Zealand’s improvisers. As an adventurous musician, Field eschews stasis and his developmental arc is particularly evident with this latest album. He is an artist who arrives at a successful formula and then turns it on its head. With each album, he makes references to his earlier works, and then he moves foreword. Everything that has gone before becomes a springboard to a new moment and each iteration is better than that preceding it.
There is a lot to like about Fields new album ‘Soundtology’. The tunes are sublimely melodic, and as always, his trademark harmonic developments astound. I have always enjoyed his avoidance of cliche and in this case, there is something else. Even when upbeat, the tunes feel more contemplative, and the space afforded, lets the music speak with clarity. This is the album of a mature composer and it is deserving of wide acclaim.
The album has eleven tunes and features two quartets (alternating throughout). This provides contrast while not affecting the flow and continuity. All of these tunes belong together and each unit locates something special. The first quartet features Field (Piano Rhodes), Nir Felder (guitar), Orlando Le Fleming (bass) and Charles Haynes (drums). The second quartet has Field (piano, Rhodes) Mike Moreno (guitar), Matt Penman (bass) and Nate Wood (drums). These are heavy hitters and Field could not have chosen better crews to spin gold out of his compositions. I was immediately drawn to the inclusion of Moreno, one of the worlds great guitar improvisers. I once flew to Sydney just to catch a concert of his.
‘Soundtology’ is a beautifully presented album and it was recorded to perfection. It is an album to be enjoyed on many levels; for its beauty and freshness and for its accessibility. If ever there was an example of complex music made to sound easy, it is here. The tunes are beguiling and memorable, but underlying them are twists and turns which elevate the tunes into listening adventures. A good example is the first track Quintus Maximus. It opens over an ostinato sequence, where a broken rhythmic pattern is established by bass and Rhodes. The intro is a teaser as it hints at possible directions without necessarily committing to them; then the melody soars and brings it together until the underlying ostinato phrases reappear. An interesting and enjoyable piece of music.
The second tune, ‘Good Friday’ is a great composition. It is among the most melodic of Fields tunes and it has been around since he first recorded it on his 2012 Warner release ‘Field of Vision’. Back in 2012, the tune was a slower-paced offering. Over the last few years, I have heard it performed often; now, it has emerged as a punchier version of its former self. It is fascinating to hear good tunes like this under constant development. This is what Field does and it is his impulse toward reinvention that elevates him beyond the pack. It is not surprising that he was recently awarded a doctorate.
There is no better example of its ongoing trajectory than the version of Good Friday we heard at Wednesday’s live performance. It had been rearranged to include a bass clarinet and a soprano saxophone. There were two guitarists as in the album, but the addition of the horns gave us yet another vantage point from which to examine the composition. A band member told me afterwards that the charts were interestingly structured. They forced the soloists to think outside of the square and to avoid any formulaic approach.
‘People factory’ was the perfect vehicle for Moreno, Penman and Wood. This number is like silk in a ruffling breeze, I have never heard Moreno sound better (and he always sounds good). The responsiveness Field extracts from Wood and Penman is also marvellous. This is seamless interplay at its best. Actually, everything is great on this album and there’s plenty of variety. This one is 4.5 stars. My advice is, buy multiple copies and impress everyone with your hip good taste.
Album: Keven Field (piano, Fender Rhodes), Mike Moreno, Nir Felder (guitar), Matt Penman, Orlando Le Fleming (bass), Charles Hayes, Nate Wood (drums).
Live gig: Kevin Field (piano, Fender Rhodes), Michael Howell & Kieth Price (guitars), Nathan Haines (tenor, soprano saxophones), Lewis McCallum (bass clarinet), Cam McArthur (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums).
The live gig took place at Anthology K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, November 11, 2020
JazzLocal32.com was 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.Many of these posts also appear on Radio13.co.nz – check it out.
This trio has been around for a while, but the musicians are all active with a variety of other projects. They frequently appear as sidemen and they first teamed up during their Auckland University Jazz School years. Passells has been teaching, composing, appearing as an altoist (and a drummer), and adding his skills to some adventurous and diverse projects. Howell is a member of various bands, such as the Jazz Tui nominated Alchemy and the Jazz Tui Award winning GRG67 who launched their second album recently. It was reviewed on this site. Deck is a gifted and versatile drummer and his work as a member of the much lauded Indie Pop group The Beths is as noteworthy as his Jazz offerings. He is also a member of GRG67.
As a composer and a performer, Passells takes a path less followed. He’s a melodicist and often appears in units where the arc is not reliant on chordal harmonies. This moves the attention to melody, and most of all, it reveals his lovely tone. The alto is an unusual instrument in this regard, as its tonal qualities can alter markedly, depending on who plays it. Perhaps, because it is aligned so closely to the human voice? It has also been suggested that the airway of an alto player can exert a stronger influence than with other horns. While a tenor can also be individualised, it is more inclined to speak on its own terms. Passells alto voice is distinctive,
There was no bass with this unit and without such anchoring, the melody lines seemed to float unencumbered. When the alto was playing the guitar would either play unison lines, lay out or provide timely interjections. The reverse occurred when Howell played. The drums however, were a solid presence and provided continuity and momentum. As a result, the tunes felt conversational and at times, thoughtful. And the ears followed the musical dialogue easily, in spite of the elided grammar. Passells introduced the tunes as he usually does and his trade-mark humour was evident. He has an easy going banter, often self-deprecating, and laden with random references.
The band played in near darkness which provided atmosphere, but made filming a difficult proposition. By the second set, the lighting had improved slightly and I have posted a tune from that set. The tune I posted is interesting, as there are frequent unison lines played, with guitar and alto speaking as one. It is reminiscent of Marsh with Konitz, but the drums pull the music in a different direction. Out of that confluence come interesting tensions. This is ripe territory for a group of this configuration and the seasoned listeners picked up on the various references.
Callum Passells (alto sax), Michael Howell (guitar), Tristan Deck (drums)
The gig took place at Anthology K’Road, for the CJC, Auckland 22 July, 2020
I was barely off the plane and my brain was full of dense fog, no doubt a legacy of San Francisco Karl who had been circling me like a spectre for a good month. I gamely fought the malaise off and because I am a creature of habit, dutifully made my way down to Auckland’s CJC Creative Jazz Club. In my experience, it pays never to miss a live improvised music gig, because if you do, you risk bitter regret. Believe me, I often lie awake lamenting a missed chance to see John McLaughlin.
Last week the Australian Duo, Emma Gilmartin and James Sherlock were on the bill accompanied by Christchurch Bass player Michael Story and Wellington drummer Mark Lockett. Lockett, who helped organise the tour, is a mainstay of the Wellington Jazz scene and offshore musicians like this arrive due to the skilful tour-on-a-shoestring wrangling of his ilk. We get to hear these Aussie, European and American bands in our New Zealand Jazz clubs, largely because of the work put in by a handful of dedicated musicians like Roger and Caro Manins (and Lockett). These organisers pitch in uncomplainingly as they lock down the events and we benefit as a result. Consequently, New Zealand has developed a rich improvised music circuit and a debt of gratitude is owed to the organisers (and to the volunteers who quietly assist).
Emma Gilmartin is a Melbourne based vocalist, composer and teacher and it was her first time performing in Auckland. She has received praise from the Australian music press and is one of an increasing number of gifted vocalists emerging out of the Australian Jazz scene. She is pitch-perfect and her appealing voice finds the corners of a room with ease. Like all good Jazz vocalists, she imparts a mood of engaging intimacy. Her co-leader on this tour, was guitarist James Sherlock, a notable musician and the perfect foil for a vocalist. An accompanist who understands how to enhance vocal performance by offering challenges and he knows how to comp without getting in the way. He is a gift to any vocalist.On solos, he also excels, at times bringing to mind earlier greats like an Oscar More (behind Nat Cole). Christchurch Bass player Michael Story rounded off the quartet nicely and it was obvious that he was enjoying himself. Again, he was the right person for the ensemble.
The program was a mix of tasteful standards and interesting originals. I have put up a clip which demonstrates the strengths of the quartet – witness the tasteful musicality of Lockett’s drum solo as the band digs into a swinging version of ‘Nica’s Dream’ by Horace Silver.Gilmartin appeared to be relishing her time in New Zealand and she announced that she would try and return next year. We hope so.
Emma Gilmartin (vocals), James Sherlock (guitar), Michael Story (bass), Mark Lockett (drums). The gig took place at Anthology, K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 4 December 2019
A while ago the program director of the Creative Jazz Club, Roger Manins mentioned that he had booked a great young group from Christchurch to appear in the emerging artist’s slot. He went on to say that many of these young emerging artists were so good that he was considering renaming the slot, something like ‘young guns’. He was right. Ocelot exuded easy-going confidence, uncommon in younger players and by the second number they owned the bandstand; navigating some slippery lines with disarming ease and swinging. This was a tight unit and it was obvious that they had put in the necessary work beforehand. That gave them the freedom to relax into the music and the results were evident.
While a little hesitant at first, they progressively engaged with the audience. This has been a theme of mine in recent months, a desire to sense the person behind the instrument. It is not about exhibitionism but about something infinitely more subtle. Something that tells a live audience that they are an essential part of a performance triangle, instrument, musician and audience. Seasoned Jazz audiences are fine-tuned to detect enthusiasm on the bandstand and likewise, they can detect disengagement.Ocelot got that and was well received.
The setlist was nicely thought through as it balanced originals with tasty tunes by established and lesser-known artists. Bravely, and to their credit, they played a Jazz arrangement of Prokofiev’s (Concerto No 2). These forays can be fraught with danger, but this interpretation was handled with ease as was Jonathan Kreisberg’s ‘Strange Resolutions’. The latter required them to navigate some tight Tristano-like unison lines in the head and emerge swinging. They did, and to see a young band do this with apparent ease was pleasing.I have posted Strange Resolutions in the YouTube clip.
The originals in the setlist were penned by the bass player and guitarist and a tune which took my fancy with its danceable Klezmer vibe was titled ‘Rakia Nightmares’ (Jonah Levine Collective). The bar is being lifted all the time, as our various Jazz Schools flourish, but what is most encouraging about this, is that they are not producing clones.
Ocelot: Finley Passmore (drums), Mitchell Dwyer (guitar), Finnzarby Richwood (piano), Callum McInnes (bass), Cheena Rae (alto saxophone). The gig took place at Anthology for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, K’ Road, Auckland CBD, 23 October 2019
Canadian Jazz guitarist Keith Price is a welcome addition to the Auckland scene. He brings with him fresh ideas and a musical connection to his hometown. Manitoba is associated with Lenny Breau and Neil Young who both grew up there. Perhaps it’s the proximity to the open spaces which echo in the music, that wide-open sound (and in Young’s case an overlay of dissonant melancholia)? Whatever it is, it certainly produces distinctive musicians. Lenny Breau is an important Jazz guitarist and one who is sadly overlooked, Hearing Price’s respectful acoustic homage on Wednesday, cast my ears in that direction again.
Before moving to New Zealand, Price recorded a collaborative album in his home state of Winnipeg and that material formed the basis of what we heard last Wednesday. While the album features Canadian musicians, it was released on our premier Kiwi label Rattle. ‘Upside Downwards’ is a terrific album and from the first track, you become aware of how spaciousness informs the compositions, a note placement and phrasing which allows the music to breathe deeply. This feeling of expansiveness is also underscored by a certain delicacy. In the first track especially, you marvel at the touch; the skilfully deployed dynamics grabbing your attention, but it is the artful articulation of Price’s playing that is especially evident. Listening through, it impossible not to feel the presence of the open plains and of Lenny Breau.
The co-leaders are perfectly attuned to each other throughout; playing as if one entity. There are no ego-driven flights here and in that sense, it reminded me of an ECM album. I had not come across either the pianist or the drummer before but they impressed deeply. From Jeff Presslaff, that delicate touch on the piano and the ability to use a minimalist approach to say a lot. The drummer Graydon Cramer a colourist and musical in the way Paul Motian was.
Wednesday’s gig was in part an album release, but Price also traversed earlier albums and played a short acoustic set. The album was a trio, but this time he brought four of Auckland’s best to the bandstand. The quintet format worked beautifully and his bandmates were clearly enjoying themselves. These guys always sound good, but it felt like they there were especially onboard for this. In the acoustic set, Price played what looked like a Martin (a Breau and a Young tribute). The other standard was a killing arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s Ju Ju. Why do we not hear that more often?
When setting up my video camera I made the mistake of locating myself near the bar and because of that, there is bleed-through from the air conditioners (the curse of all live recordings). The sightlines are also poor from that end. Never-the-less, I have put up a clip from the first set titled ‘Solstice/Zoom Zoom’. It was worth posting in spite of the defects. I have also posted a sound clip from the album titled ‘6 chords commentary’.
Album: Keith Price (guitar), Jeff Presslaff (Piano), Gradon Cramer (drums)
Auckland Quintet: Keith Price (guitars), Kevin Field (piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Olivier Holland (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums). Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, K’Road, 09 October 2019. Recoding available at Rattle Bandcamp.
Louisa Williamson is a gifted young tenor saxophonist who has visited Auckland on previous occasions. This time, and for the first time, she visited as a bandleader, showcasing her beautiful compositions. I have always admired her tone and improvisational abilities, but this was a step up. Freed from the comfort of a band she knew well, she cast herself among an array of experienced Auckland musicians. Stephen Thomas on drums, Tom Dennison on bass and Michael Howell on guitar. The only Wellingtonian (besides Williamson) was pianist George Maclaurin and together as a band they delivered. This was engaging straight-ahead Jazz.
In the history of this music, only a handful of female tenor or baritone saxophonists have received their due. If Williamson keeps playing like this she will surely inspire others and that is how the music grows. She has already come to international attention when she became the first New Zealander to join the JM Jazz World Orchestra in 2016. She is at present working towards a Masters in composition at the NZSM. After hearing her compositions on this date, the outcome should prove interesting. Her tunes possess an appealing melodicism while underpinned by an unfussy harmonic cushion. It is post-bop mainstream but there is nothing stale about it.Afterwards, a band member from among the Auckland pick-ups remarked how well the charts were constructed.
I have put up the first tune from the first set titled ‘Slightly run-down’.A tune where the underlying motifs are opened up as the theme develops. It is a story with a beginning, middle and ending and it is told without artifice. Everything felt in balance, the short phrase of arco bass during a changeup, the staccato restatement of the theme on the guitar, and above all the horns careful parsing of the melody.
The keyboardist Maclaurin was familiar with the leader’s tunes and consequently, he was the perfect harmonic anchor point. He also delivered some nice solos. The Auckland contingent of Howell on guitar, Dennison on upright bass and Stephen Thomas on drums took no time in establishing their credentials. I was particularly happy to see Dennison on the bandstand as he is seldom seen at the club these days. A fine bass player who always finds the best notes; a melodicist and a musician who has an impeccable feel for time. Howell and Thomas we see regularly and both are deservedly popular with audiences. I look forward to Williamson’s continued journey as she is learning to show more of herself. Being the leader, she spoke and told stories and I hope she does more of that. Jazz is at its best when it shows some emotion and in live performance, the artist’s engagement with an audience is the X factor lifting the music ever higher.
Louisa Williamson Quintet: Louisa Williamson (tenor saxophone, compositions), George Maclaurin (keyboards), Michael Howell (guitar), Tom Dennison (upright bass), Stephen Thomas (guitar). The gig was at Anthology for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 25 September 2019Louisa
The history of music is the history of instrument development and from the earliest of times, musicians have expanded the reach of their instruments. The mother of instruments, Al’ Oud was first documented 3500 years ago, but documenting the development of the drum is a nebulous task. It almost certainly arose in Africa and along the way it has undergone a multitude of modifications. On Wednesday there was another waypoint along the continuum under the forward-looking beats of Stephen Thomas. Thomas is a gifted drummer and percussionist and in his hands, the instrument takes on a new life by transcending the mundane. The gig arose out of his last years Masters recital and the focus was on extended technique; combining physical drum rhythms, electronics via a drum pad, prepared drum heads and samples.
Improvisers are the masters of extended technique, but even so, it is comparatively rare to hear these effects applied to drums, winds or reeds in Jazz. The most obvious examples occurred during the 70’s fusion era, but post 70s Shorter and Harris, who carved a credible path, only a brave few have followed. In my view, it requires experienced musicians to do this well and Stephen Thomas is well qualified to realise this project. Done badly it can look like a botched attempt to blur technique deficiencies. Done well it is an opening into a brave new world and another set of tools to build on what has gone before.
True to label, The Stephen Thomas Electric Band was wired and utilised effects, including the horn section. There were various configurations from sextet to duo and each configuration teased out a particular facet of the interesting compositions. The full line up was: drums (+ electronics), two saxophonists (+ electronics, one playing alto and the other playing tenor, soprano or Ewi). There was a keyboard player, an electric bass player and two electric guitarists (+ one guitarist playing prepared guitar). The horns often played in unison as did the bass and keyboard. With the octave or chorusing effect deployed, this made for a rich and full-throated palette of tonal colours.
I have posted two very different tunes from the gig, One is MG40 with the sextet and the other a duo between Thomas and Joel Vinsen (the latter on prepared guitar). If you listen closely to MG40, you will detect the echoes of a distant past. An echo from the 1950s in fact when the conductor Leonard Bernstein attempted to explain Jazz to a very young audience. That footage is hopelessly time-locked as the plummy voice of a high-brow white man ‘explaining black music’ overshadows the message. Notwithstanding, I have no doubt that many of the Bernstein Philharmonic attendees would go on to explore improvised music after hearing Benny Golson and the sextet perform. What Thomas does with this piece is both playful and respectful. Bernstein would get it and laugh out loud. MG40 refers to Mark Giuliani – a drummer on the same trailblazing path.
The other piece I have posted involves the sextet. With Alan Brown on keyboards and Andy Smith on guitar, the piece soars as it morphs into a multi-layered groove piece, one reminiscent of the Fusion era. The overall sound has lots of bottom, with the bass effects and saxophone effects creating a surreal lower register cushion; over which Smith and Brown build towards the heart-stopping crescendo. This was a group of heavyweight performers with Chris Mason-Battley and Markus Fritsch the horn line. And none of it possible without the invention, vision and superior chops of Thomas.
The Stephen Thomas Electric Band:Stephen Thomas (drum kit, drum pad + effects, triggered samples, percussion, prepared drums), Alan Brown (digital keyboard), Andy Smith (guitar + effects), Chris Mason Battley (saxophones, Ewi + effects), Markus Fritsch (alto saxophone), Mostyn Cole (electric bass + effects), Joel Vinsen (prepared guitar + effects). The gig took place at Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 18 September 2019
The Melbourne group Spirograph Studies was exactly as described, modern and eclectic. In this quartet, there were no horns to carve out melodic lines. Instead, a guitar and piano spun intricate layers one on the other, focussing more on well-crafted motifs and harmonic development. There was melody but it was mostly implied, nestling comfortably among richly dissonant textures and emerging out of the subtle interplay. It was often voice-led but not as we know it and the overall effect was beguiling.
The playing was great but what also stood out were the compositions. What we experienced was an unmistakable Jazz Americana vibe. There were no actual Frisell tunes played but the great man’s essence hung in the air; residing most strongly in the interactions between leader Tamara Murphy and her bandmate Fran Swinn; Murphy the enabler and Swinn the ideal vehicle for realisation. As Swinn stroked the chords, the soulful utterances reeled us in; urged on by the bass. With music as delicately layered as this, no band member can afford veer off coarse and none did. This was a disciplined ensemble but in spite of that, the music flowed effortlessly. Their overall sound was warm and yet it tugged on the heartstrings, hinting at a distant sadness. The signature sound of Americana, where every note is weighted with nostalgia.
The other core band member was drummer James McLean. A drummer who showed his ability by responding appropriately to the textural subtleties and propelling the gentle swing feel. His brushwork was crisp and his stick-work understated so as to reside inside the music and not all over it.The pianist on the ‘Kindness not Courtesy’ album was Luke Howard, but on their Australasian tour, his role was alternated with Sam Keevers. I have heard Keevers before as he is a well respected Australian pianist. For a long period, he held the piano chair in the Vince Jones group (a coveted position held before him by Barney McAll).Having Keevers onboard during the New Zealand leg worked a treat. A skilled accompanist who knows a lot about supportive playing and comping. The Piano and guitar interacting seamlessly and moving in and around each other’s phrases like dance partners.
Music is the highest form of communication. It is universal. It reveals truths, tells stories, entertains, and in Mark de Clive-Lowe’s case, it evokes other realities. This was a masterclass in storytelling; an unfolding kaleidoscope where the contradictions and sublime realisations about the human condition were brought into focus. ‘Heritage 1 + 2’ the albums reflect his personal story, a journey of reconnection, an exploration of culture and of family history. He revealed it through moments of spoken narrative, but above all through his reverential musical examination of Japanese art forms. This was a musical journey where the highly personal overlapped the philosophical. It was a journey back to his Jazz roots and undertaken entirely on his own terms.
At least twenty years have passed since I last heard MdCL perform in Auckland. Back then he was regarded as a youthful Jazz prodigy and people flocked to hear him.Accompanying such acclaim comes expectations and that can be a straight jacket. It was the era of the media-hyped ‘young lions’, when up and coming Jazz musicians were expected to showcase standards and reclaim a glorious past. While the die-hards repeated their time-worn mantras, something else bubbled beneath the surface; musicians like MdCL shucked off others expectations; in his case moving a world away to engage with the hybrid music/dance scene in London. From there he moved on to LA where he built a solid and enduring reputation. These days Auckland has a flourishing improvised music scene and audiences value innovation. In this space, Jazz and other genres merge effortlessly. Because of that, it was exactly the right moment for MdCL to bring this project home. Auckland heard the call and the concerts reached capacity club audiences.
When MdCL introduced the sets he talked about his childhood and of cultural disconnection. Experiences like this although disquieting feed the creative spirit. The recent album and the tour follow a time spent in Japan where he immersed himself in his mother’s culture. The album opens with ‘The Offering’ an apt and beguiling introduction piece. Like a ritual washing of hands before a tea ceremony, a moment to sweep away preconceptions. Another standout honoured his mother by evoking her family name. ‘Mizugaki’ is perhaps the most reflective and personal tune of the sets. This cross-cultural feel is evident from the opener to the tunes which follow. While the scales and moods speak of Japan, the interpretations belong to an improviser. Throughout, MdCL maintains this fine balancing act. Evoking the unique moods of the haiku or ink wash. Illusory moods that are best described in the Japanese as no English phrase is adequate. And to all of this, he brings his lived experience. A kiwi-born musician with a foot in many camps.
With the exception of two traditional folk tunes, the compositions (and arrangements) are his own, other elements of his musical journey are also evident: tasteful electronics, drum & bass, Jazz. For copies of the two albums and MdCL’s other recordings go to Bandcamp (links below). Perhaps we can lure him back more often as he certainly has a following here. On the New Zealand leg of his tour, he was joined by Marika Hodgson on electric bass, Myele Manzanza on drums (and in Auckland by Lewis McCallum on flute and alto). The Kiwi contingent sounded good alongside MdCL and for a return-home tour, there was a rightness to utilising Kiwi musicians. I have posted a tune from the Auckland gig titled ‘Silk Road’. The Silk Road carried music, ideas, goods and culture, travelling by any means and from Japan to Spain; and now New Zealand.
Subject to availability, Richard Hammond is the kind of bass player that you would consider first for an important gig or recording.He is known for his musicality, authenticity and above all for his deep groove. His upright-bass chops are immaculate, deep in-the-pocket; his electric bass, as punchy as a kicking mule. It is therefore unsurprising that he works among the elite ranks of New Yorks first-call session musicians. He also gigs around NYC, tours with well-known vocalists and works on shows like Hamilton.Sometimes, when the luck falls our way, he visits Aotearoa. This time he returned primarily to play bass at Nathan Haines ‘Shift Left’ Civic Theatre gig.The above show has garnered rave reviews.
Hammond has real presence and his human qualities shine through all that he does.I refer there to his warm and engaging persona, his instinctive friendliness and generosity. I mention those qualities because they appear to inform his playing. In his case, the man and his music are as one. Of late this has been a theme in my posts. I find myself increasingly looking inside the music to see if I can locate the human being behind the instrument. Seeking a musicians ability (or inability) to show us something of themselves. Such a manifestation can change a listeners perception and with improvised music, it is the bread and butter of good interactions. Hammond spends most of his time in the studio but he has never forgotten these essential communication skills. In live performance, this can be critical. It could be termed as ‘character’ and inevitably it feeds musical choices. A room filled with notes is one thing, but a room bubbling with musical life is quite another.
The setlist was a tribute to Hammond’s homeland. Apart from the two tunes written by a US musician, the rest were composed by Kiwis.It was great to hear these tunes reprised and especially with a fresh and fired-up lineup. The most significant contributor was Kevin Field whose talent for composition and arranging is well known. Nothing appears to unsettle Field. At one point the sound was lost from a monitor (and from the piano). He immediately moved to the Rhodes and as usual, played at the top of his game. I have posted the version of his tune ‘Good Friday’. A familiar tune with numerous iterations but perhaps, never played as joyfully as this; the bass lines from Hammond giving it supersonic lift-off.
The band were Richard Hammond (electric and upright bass), Kevin Field (piano and Rhodes),Michael Howell (guitar),Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Stephen Thomas (drums) and guest vocalist Marjan. Together, they celebrated aspects of New Zealand improvised music’ much of it upbeat and funk orientated. Marjan showcased some of her own tunes plus a well known New Zealand tune ‘Brown Girl’ which had been reimagined as a Jazz tune by Kevin Field (more on that in a future post).
This is Hammonds third visit home in as many years and I hope that he makes it a regular fixture. We seldom hear electric bass like that.The gig took place at the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Anthology, K’Road, Auckland, New Zealand on 21 August 2019
Two bass, two drummer gigs while not unknown usually occur in service of a chordal instrument or of a horn line, and when a solo bass concert occurs, an audience is frequently shown ‘cleverness’. On this occasion, the bass of Elsen Price freed the instrument from the narrow confines of the standard rhythm section or the conventional solo bass repartee; instead, exposing the beautiful resonances and the reach of the instrument. This was sublime music and complete unto itself. It celebrated a gifted musician and a wonderful instrument but without displays of egocentricity. The feat was achieved by inviting us inside the music, and into a sonic cornucopia. We listened and we were captivated.
Life is full of unexpected sonorities and if we believe ourselves to be familiar with them all we are deluded. It is a paradox of modern life that popular music, while prolific, is cursed by formula-driven compositions. On Wednesday, Price and his ensemble teased the new from the familiar. Each instrument adding colour-tones and texture. Hands, fingers, ‘broom’ sticks, standard sticks, mallets, all deployed to good effect. Clicks, taps, scrapes on parchment, rim shots, gongs, bells and balloons under cymbals. And Price leading the way; a conduction answered by each musician and often in unison; acts of collective intuition.
It is rare to hear Jazz arco bass played so well, it filled the room and swelled, but during the pizzicato passages Price was equally stunning. He is clearly a master technician but this was not about chops. He oversaw the ensemble as a true democrat, giving space and responding to the others. The first set was solo bass. Here Price showed us the breadth of his vision. He employed a looper peddle and would set up a drone or a motif. He would play counterpoint, either arco or plucked, sometimes creating a second loop over the first. He did not rely overly on the live samples, but harnessed them for discrete passages and always under his precise control.
What we experienced in the second set were energised permanences by Price and his ensemble. Each revealing in their own way what lay deep within the music. That particular set ran a full hour and without interruption. It was a composition for improvisation but with no music on display and as far as I’m aware, no prior rehearsal. Price guided them with gestures or by changing pace. For these types of gigs to work well, the combined energies must feed a room. Music like this leans heavily on interplay, an intuitive reading of cues and deep listening by the musicians. Such high wire acts can easily falter, but this didn’t. That the terrain was navigated so effectively is because the right people were in place on the bandstand.
Besides Price, on the second bass, was Eamon Edmundson Wells. Although the youngest member of the ensemble he is well versed in playing avant-garde situations. He would be among the first you go to for anything adventurous and he always delivers. On drum kit was Ron Samsom and it was pleasing to have him on this gig. Nothing daunts him and he has few stylistic limitations. He clearly relished the opportunity to play in the ensemble and to interact with another drummer. As he initiated cymbal scrapes, tapped with mallets and scuffed the ‘broom’ sticks the textures richened. This was colourist drumming of the best kind; extending the kit beyond the role of mere timekeeping. On hand drums and percussion was Chris O’Connor; the drummer most often seen in line ups like this. His ability to move seamlessly between genres is legendary; in these situations, he adds inestimable value. With O’Connor you get an ‘Art Ensemble of Chicago’ experience; all the tiny bells and gongs and with each one appearing exactly where it should for best effect.
Gigs like this can sometimes be difficult for audiences, especially those unfamiliar with a freer type of music. In this case, the audience showed enthusiasm, obviously enjoying the experience.
Elsen Price (upright bass, looper), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums), Chris O’Connor (drums, percussion) @ Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland 14 August 2019
It was four years ago and almost to the day, that Kushal Talele was last at the CJC. Then, as now, he had just returned from a long period overseas. I heard him for the first time then and I was impressed. That was in the cellar of the 1885, a place now a fond but distant memory. A few days ago he returned to the CJC and although he played with a different band, his unmistakeable upwards trajectory was evident. There is nothing unduly flashy about Talele as he radiates calm and absorption. At the microphone, he talks quietly, but there is passion in those subdued tones.
It is especially evident when he plays, as you are taken directly to melody and it’s heartfelt melody carried on his distinctive sound. There were many influences evident last time, but on this gig one thing was clear. We were now hearing something closer to a modern New York tenor sound; the tonal qualities, the clarity of articulation when in full flow. On ballads, however, there was a hint of vibrato and at the end of phrases, the merest whisper of breath. Taken as a whole package, these stylistic approaches are appealing.
Talele does not play at high volume, or at least he didn’t on this gig. He stood back from the microphone and this emphasised a number of acoustic subtleties. Small flurries, slight changes in modulation, nothing demanding greater amplification. Playing at lower volume allowed for more interplay and the conversations between instruments were more nuanced. There was however one uptempo number and to everyone’s delight, that channelled a bebop vibe.
Talele’s compositions were also noteworthy and most of the tunes we heard were originals. In all of those, it was the melodic arc which grabbed your attention. Harmonically, they leaned toward romanticism, but every voicing was in service of the melody. Reinforcing this was his rhythm section, drawn from among the finest that Auckland has to offer; Kevin Field, Olivier Holland and Ron Samsom. Having the piano away from the bandstand is at times a little disconcerting, but Field always makes the best of any situation. He made that white piano sing and because the sound was well mixed, the proximity of the piano was not an issue.
This was an enjoyable gig and I hope that Talele gets to stay a while. New Zealand and Australian saxophonists are gradually developing their own distinct thing. They absorb what they hear elsewhere and bring an antipodean perspective to it. Perhaps a bit of the Chris Potter vibe, so evident in players like Talele will accelerate that process.
Kushal Talele (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (piano), Olivier Holland (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums). The gig took place at Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland 7 August 2019.
Brad Kang has previously appeared at the CJC, but this time he was here with his own quintet. It is not too much of a stretch to say that most emerging Jazz guitarists during the last decade have demonstrated a liberal dose of Kurt Rosenwinkel in their playing. It is in their sound and their approach to melody and it was unmistakable with Kang. That clean bright tone and the fluent unison lines as he and saxophonist Louisa Williamson ran through the head arrangements.
His compositions were vehicles for showcasing a formidable technique and the tunes were internalised, allowing him to play the sets with barely a glance at his charts. It is common for older and more experienced musicians to internalise the music, but less common for younger musicians who like to keep the charts close at hand.Kang’s confident familiarity with the music paid dividends for him.
Kang and Williamson are a natural fit; not only when they run those tight unison head lines, but also during solos. Williamson adding a necessary weight to counter-balance Kang’s guitar, which mostly traverses the higher register. On stage, Williamson tends to hide behind the horn, giving little of her self away. That is, until she solos. Then, she’s suddenly authoritative and an expansive storyteller. Her tone rich and her fluency beyond question.
Unlike Williamson and Kaa, the pianist George Maclaurin was new to the audience as were bass player Hamish Smith and drummer Hikurangi Schaverien Kaa. They hail from either Wellington or Christchurch; part of a nationwide and pleasing renaissance invigorating the New Zealand Jazz scene.
Since his return from North Texas where he studied previously, Kang has become a fixture on the Wellington and Christchurch Jazz scenes. This New Zealand tour will be his last for a while as he is moving to New York shortly to study at the Manhattan School of Music.When he returns, his musical journey can be updated and he will no doubt share that with New Zealand audiences.
Brad Kang Quintet: Brad Kang (guitar), George MacLaurin (piano), Louisa Williamson (tenor saxophone), Hamish Smith (bass), Hikurangi Schaverien Kaa (drums), at Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 24th July 2019. Photograph by and with thanks to Barry Young.
Anything that Jeff Henderson is associated with is likely to be intense, mind-altering and extraordinary. No matter how prepared you think that you are, you should understand that your head will be fucked with. When you factor in Tom Callwood, Anthony Donaldson and Daniel Beban the Henderson effect is magnified exponentially. This music is powerful stuff as it sweeps aside genres as irrelevant distractions. When confronted with a gig like this you abandon preconceptions, as the sonic smorgasbord jolts you out of complacency. It is also a visual experience and Fellini would have signed these guys up in a heart-beat.
There was no music on the stands, one break and there were no announcements. The music followed its own momentum and created its own time. In some sections you were confronted with reedy screams, while in others you heard languid whispers; hinting at some lost illusory past; one located just outside the edge of memory. There was of course structure, but that was determined by the music’s inner logic. It reminded me of a recent Wayne Shorter performance where he purged any semblance of song form; removing structures that impeded the flow, leaving the audience with just music; a vessel inside which the musicians could move freely. Intuitive interaction is the foundation of all improvised music. In this case, the music was a river in flood, an elastic entity, following an old course or cutting a fresh channel at will.
There were two tunes in the first set (one a Parker number delivered with the essence of Ornette presiding). The overall impression was of one piece of music with a number of moving parts. As the parts formed, some felt familiar, but where you ended up was generally somewhere unexpected. This was a chimeric journey and like children watching a cartoon for the first time, we lived entirely in each moment.Modern music audiences are dumbed down with endless nonsense; the old trope that music can only be swallowed in discrete recognisable chunks. This music made no concessions to that or any other populist view and nor should it. Many who attended last week were unfamiliar with the avant-garde, but they didn’t need to be told what it was about. They didn’t need an explanation, to know that it belonged to this or that genre. The proof was in the reception. People sat there totally absorbed and because the experience was all-encompassing, 2 1/2 hours flew by.
Jeff Henderson plays the role of a dark shepherd on New Zealand’s ‘out-music’ scene. He composes astonishing music and plays many instruments; among them the seldom heard ‘C’ Melody saxophone. He has frequently collaborated with greats like Marilyn Crispell. Next is Tom Callwood who is often a collaborator of Henderson’s. If you needed a peg to hang his bass playing on, then you might say that he has a Charlie Haden sound (early Haden). He is one of the finer bass players I’ve heard and it’s our loss that he doesn’t live in Auckland. Anthony Donaldson is another hero from the alternative and avant-garde music scene. He’s known for his interactive, sensitive and melorhythmic approach (OK, I made that word up). He is acknowledged as one of New Zealand’s finest drummers and his influence is widespread. Joining the above-mentioned artists for the second set was guitarist and experimental musician Daniel Beban. He is the current Douglas Lilburn Research Fellow and is also at the forefront of the Wellington experimental music scene. His ‘Orchestra of the Spheres’ takes SunRa’s approach to a new level.
Melancholy/Stinging Babes: Jeff Henderson (baritone, alto, C melody, tenor saxes, clarinet). Tom Callwood (upright bass), Anthony Donaldson (drums), Daniel Beban (guitar). The gig was held at Anthology, K’Road Auckland, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 17 July 2019.
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.
As Wednesday nights at the new Anthology venue move into high gear, a tried and trusted CJC programming philosophy remains constant. To provide a quality venue for local and international musicians to showcase their original projects, and to provide a performance space that up and comers can aspire to. As before, two or three gig slots are kept for emerging artists, and this year those slots have expanded to include Wellingtonian and Christchurch improvisers. Performing on Wednesday were Wellington musicians Frank Talbot and Ella Dunbar-Wilcox. Both sets had the same rhythm section; pianist Kevin Field, Bassist Cam McArthur, and drummer Adam Tobeck.
First up was Frank Talbot. A tall tenor player with a clean tone and nimble articulation. Talbot is a recent graduate of the New Zealand School of Music and he is currently completing his honours degree. New Zealand produces many good tenor players and judging by Talbot’s confident performance on Wednesday, he will go from strength to strength. He is certainly making all of the right moves and testing himself in varied situations, so he will certainly be one to watch.On his setlist, there were all originals and I have posted his interesting tune ‘Inquisition’. I also liked ‘Intervalic’ and a moving tune (which I heard as) ‘Steak and kidney pies, no goodbyes’. The latter was dedicated to his mother who is going through very tough times health wise. A nice heart-felt tribute.
The second set featured Ella Dunbar-Wilcox. A vocalist in her third year of studies (also at the New Zealand School of Music). Her performance showed considerable maturity as she tackled some challenging arrangements and tunes. Not many emerging vocalists would tackle the more upbeat Coltrane tunes or a tricky stop-start McLorin Salvant arrangement. She navigated these charts with ease. I also liked the balance in her set list which provided us with pleasing contrasts. The cheerful, upbeat (and rarely heard) Bobby Timmons number ‘That There’. This followed her own ballad ‘Lonely Eyes’. Then there was ‘Night Hawks’, a reference to the Edward Hopper painting and capturing perfectly that sense of isolation and ennui.I have put up her interpretation of ‘I didn’t know what time it was’.
Engaging a quality local rhythm section for both sets was a sensible move. Field, McArthur, and Tobeck are adept accompanists and used to working with unfamiliar musicians. And more importantly, all have worked extensively with vocalists. This draws upon very different skills and in this regard especially, Field is superb.
Frank Talbot (tenor saxophone)
Ella Dunbar-Wilcox (vocals)
Rhythm Section: Kevin Field (piano), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Adam Tobeck (drums) The gig was for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) @ Anthology, K’Road, Auckland, 3 July 2019
When you look up the term Ruckus in the various dictionaries, the definitions are broad. It is generally defined as a commotion, but it can also describe an argument, the joyful noise emanating from a soccer stadium, loud disputation, the general rowdiness of children and even a fight.With such an array of options at my disposal, I have selected ‘joyous commotion’. This is the term that most fits the bill when alluding to this band. Ruckus has some history in Auckland and especially along the reaches of Ponsonby Road. While the personnel often come and go, the ethos does not. Kicking up the dust in this current melee were David Ward, Neil Watson, Cam Allen, Eamon Edmundson Wells, and Chris O’Connor. David Ward is a central figure in the group and his compositions featured strongly last Wednesday.
Again, it was encouraging to see the high turnout at the CJC after a month in the new K’Road Anthology venue. The word is clearly getting about that this is the best place to enjoy Wednesday nights. Once you descend the stairs, winter becomes a distant memory. While clearly pulling in the crowds, the band is hard to pigeon hole. The music hints at a number of descriptors and among them, terms like Zappa-esque, improvised Americana, Fellini-esque and Monkish all come close. At times they veer towards the experimental but no matter the direction, they are always fun.
With the exception of an obscure Monk tune, the tunes last week were originals. These were unique arrangements with a textural richness created by instruments full of contrast. A baritone saxophone with a pedal steel guitar plus Fender offers up an interesting sound palette. With O’Connor and Edmundson Wells, the palette is complete. Both have ‘out’ credentials and O’Connor is as much a percussionist as he is a conventional drummer. Allen moved between baritone and tenor and during his solos, but he never departed too far from the over-arching message. This band stands strongly on its collective strength. Ward featured strongly in the heads of the tunes, establishing unusual rhythmic figures then skilfully pulling them apart.When both Fenders were playing they acted as if in sync, moving in and out without clashing. With the pedal-steel numbers, Watson was adventurous, often using the instrument in unexpected ways.He, Ward and O’Conner also made wide use of percussive effects; clicks, squeaks, and muted staccato guitar.
There is mileage to be had in these adventurous offings and I hope that they develop the repertoire further. While it may not be what an audience is anticipating, in this case, they lapped it up. Especially when leavened with calypso.
Ruckus: David Ward (Fender Guitar), Neil Watson (pedal steel, Fender Guitar), Cam Allen (baritone, tenor saxophone), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Chris O’Connor (drums)
The original‘Jazz Committee’ was formed while bass player Mat Fieldes was still living in New Zealand.Back then he had quite a few fans, and many who remembered him turned out for his recent CJC gig.Anthology, the new CJC venue, was packed to capacity and that was good news. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since Fieldes left and New York has long been his base. When he arrived in that city 25 years ago he studied at Juilliard. From there he went on to establish a solid career that spans genres and continents. He has played with symphony orchestras, on Broadway and with out-jazz musicians like Ornette Colman. He is a master of fusion and comfortable with Hip Hop. That he is always in demand is a tribute to his abilities as the US music scene is extremely competitive. It is apparent to me, that our New Zealand bass players do very well in hothouse environments (e.g. Fieldes, Hammond, Penman).
It is not often that Fieldes gets back here as he has a busy performance schedule, but this time he was open to doing some local gigs. The vehicle, a collective, was an updated version of the ‘Jazz Committee’ now simply called ‘The Committee’.In its new incarnation, Fieldes is on upright bass and electric bass, Dixon Nacey on guitar, Roger Manins on tenor and Ron Samsom on drums. The program was fusion heavy or as Fieldes put it, ‘I don’t know if this is Jazz, I’ll let you decide’. Manins clarification muddied the waters further. ‘If you like it then it’s Jazz, and if you don’t, then it’s still Jazz’.
It was a compelling grab you by the collar type of music; it was punchy, improvised and drawing upon many streams; tilting towards an updated but funkier Return to Forever or Electric Miles vibe. Many of the tunes were Fieldes but the others submitted originals as well.Among them, Samsom’s funk offering, Nacey honouring Scofield and Manins showcasing his wonderful tune, Schwiben Jam (see clip). That tune featured on last years ‘No Dogs Allowed’ album and I am happy to see it in this setlist. Occasionally, I hear a tune that could become a standard or at the very least a local standard. Here it was in a different context and with Nacey and Fieldes steering it into fresh waters. It was immaculate and I hope that I hear it played often (perhaps, with Rhodes fills for additional texture and Nacey as a must-have).
It’s always interesting when the diaspora of improvising musicians return.They bring with them the stories of their new home and the influences of those who they’ve played alongside.It is also instructive to see how they interact with their old bandmates (and some new ones). If last Wednesday is anything to go by, the answer is, very well. This type of gig is increasingly important in our fast burgeoning scene. We have hit a sweet spot and the audiences are responding. When artists like Fieldes return there is cross-pollination. As a consequence, we are enriched. And just maybe, some of that essence finds its way back into the New York scene.
Committee: Mat Fieldes (upright & electric bass), Dixon Nacey (guitar),Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Ron Samsom (drums). The gig was at Anthology, K’Road, Auckland, 19 June 2016
About eighteen months ago I was contacted by Jeff Henderson. He suggested, that I might be interested in a gig featuring two great Norwegian musicians who were passing through. I certainly was. The musicians were John Pal Inderberg and Hakon Mjaset Johansen. I was particularly interested because the baritone saxophonist John Pal Inderberg is associated with Lee Konitz and the late Warne Marsh. I make no bones about it, I am an unapologetic devotee of the Tristanoites. During that particular visit, the duo played a number of Scandinavian folk tunes and in their hands, these became melodic springboards for improvisation and a cloak for standards (with local bassist Eamon Edmundson-Wells). The Nordic region has a rich history of improvised music and it is therefore unsurprising that so many innovative US improvisers have ended up living and working there. With artists of this quality to work with why wouldn’t they? Inderberg and his band are great ambassadors.
Last week, John Pal Inderberg returned to New Zealand, but this time with his trio. Accompanying Inderberg was bass player Trygve Waldemar Fiske, and again, Johansen on drums. The gig was superb from start to finish and Inderberg’s trademark humour constantly delighted the audience. What we heard were new-sounding tunes, but inside these were older tunes, and in turn, many of the latter emanating from even older standards. These multilayered ‘reharmonisations’ are the bread and butter of skilled Jazz musicians and especially the Tristanoites. A beautifully modal folk tune became Cole Porter’s ‘You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To’ but with reharmonised Konitz lines adding to the sonic puzzle.The nearest thing to a straight ahead Jazz standard, and played as written, was their beautifully respectful rendition of the popular Benny Golson classic ‘Whisper Not’.
It was a night of extraordinary musicianship with the players communicating at the highest level. Inderberg is a master saxophonist and his baritone has a tonal quality few could emulate. A number of saxophonists play the ‘Bari’ as a doubling instrument but few make it their primary. In Inderberg’s hands, the mighty beast appeared to float. I recall noticing the same thing when watching a film of Gerry Mulligan, the weighty horn somehow defying gravity and as if imbued with a weightless quality. This lightness of being is, of course, an illusion. One bolstered by the nimble lines and airy tone.Every so often Inderberg would recite in Norwegian. Norwegian in triple-time, elevating the strangely accented utterances into an unusual form of ‘scat’. The other two, playing straight-men, would roll their eyes. Occasionally, and effectively, the trio would also sing an introduction; softly and movingly.This was a well-rounded show; free flowing but enjoyable from start to finish.
The bass and drums in a cordless setting are exposed and naked. Fiske and Johansen are great musicians and they demonstrated just how to meet that challenge. This was a master class in how to create a rich tapestry with a handful of well-chosen threads. Beautifully melodic bass lines with innovative solos and at times, singing arco bass. While the drumming was melodic, it was also orchestral; reaching across the entire spectrum of Jazz drumming and without once resorting to cliche (watch the clip). A Trio without a chordal instrument is not the norm, but they do hold a special place in Jazz. It’s about freedom and unencumbered melodic lines. It’s also about the interactions and of course, counterpoint.
There is an ideological synergy between Norway and New Zealand and long may such cultural exchanges continue. Norway is almost an antipodes away, but I sincerely hope the Inderberg Trio returns. This visit, like the last, was a rare treat.
I reviewed the ‘Shuffle’ album in January and the band is now on the road, sharing its groove throughout the North Island.As they passed through Auckland I attended the second gig, but this presented me with a problem as a reviewer. When you’ve already done a review, you don’t want traverse ground you’ve covered, and in addition, reaching for superlatives has its limits. During the live performance, the answer presented itself via my friend Stuart.He and I have had this album playing constantly; in our cars and on our HiFi’s. In my case, I’ve sampled tracks on trains and while waiting in a supermarket queue.It is that sort of album; addictive to a fault and quickly becoming an indispensable friend in times of need. Last Wednesday we listened to the first number and as the set progressed, Stuart nudged me and whispered. ‘These are standards to us’ and he was right.
We knew the head arrangements off by heart in the way you do for Stella or Autumn Leaves; everything internalised and ready for triggering before a single note was played. We knew the track order, we knew the rhythms – the tunes and arrangements. There were no official standards on the album but that was immaterial. The Shuffle tunes are memorable, danceable, filled with melodic hooks, and our minds raced ahead of the lines in anticipation; delighting at each newly improvised line; mentally comparing them to the album forms.
This is what happens with Jazz standards. We love the originals but we never want to hear a band slavishly repeating the material note for note. The crazier the interpretation the better.Performing mental gymnastics during an intro and gasping in delight as a key phrase or line hints at the destination.That Roger Manins, Ron Samsom, Michel Benebig, Carl Lockett and stand in-guitarist Neil Watson achieved this with an album of originals was remarkable. Naturally, such a singularity is not a lucky accident but the result of good compositional skills and fine musicianship. In a troubled month, we have all needed good-hearted friends to lean on and what better friend than a Shuffle. Lockett is temporarily lost again as he wisely has no engagement with social media. Having Watson step in was inspired, as he brought the core Shufflers a new perspective. Crisp drums, deep organ grooves, stinging blues, and crazy horn lines. Shuffle is a wonderful band and I have no doubt that they will bring pleasure for years to come. An assembly of ’emerging standards’ winging their way across the land and demanding acceptance for what they are.
Definition of a Jazz Standard:Part of the repertoire of a Jazz musician, compositions widely known, recognised by listeners and played often by Jazz musicians.Maybe Stu and I are not alone here.These tunes will be performed often and when others recognise them as we do – they will become standards.
Roger Manins (Tenor saxophone, compositions), Ron Samsom (drums, compositions), Michel Benebig (Hammond Organ, compositions), Neil Watson (guitar) @ Backbeat, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 17 April 2019
Perhaps it’s the anniversary of the moon landings, or perhaps it’s the crazy-arsed nonsense happening down on planet earth, but deep space has been very much on my mind lately. I have not been alone in this preoccupation as I appear to share this with a group of explorative improvising musicians. I was recently on local radio taking about a favourite topic, ‘space dreams and analogue machines’ and it occurred to me then, that space dreamers have always shaped our other-world view. Frank Hampson (Dan Dare Comics), Gene Rodenbury (Star Trek) and musicians like Eddie Henderson (Sunburst), or Sun Ra (Space is the Place). Humans have always looked to the stars for inspiration but only writers and musicians have the courage to describe what others cannot yet imagine.
For the second time in a month I attended a space themed gig and this time it was titled Phobos the scary moon’. Phobos circles Mars and it was only discovered in 1877. It is a small moon, but since its discovery it has exerted an outsized influence on the human imagination. The Greek god Phobos is a god of a fear associated with war. The word Phobia comes from this. For those with open ears and a love of adventurous grooves there was only joy to found here. Nothing about Cam Allen’s Phobos gig required the listener to seek Freudian analysis afterwards. This was an enjoyable night and the scariest part came later as I was walking back to the car and heard an off-key wail from a nearby karaoke bar.
The band – intergalactic warriors all; Cam Allen on saxophones, gongs and percussion, John Bell on vibes and horn, Julien Dyne on drums, Eamon Edmudson-Wells on upright bass and Duncan Cameron on keys. I rate John Bell’s Aldebaran quartet highly and for similar reasons I rate this band. This type of improvised music is still under explored and it is long overdue for more careful examination. It has form but the structure is not beholden to form; it has melody and hooks but not at the expense of mood or texture. The musicians here conveyed real enthusiasm for the project and that enhanced the effect.
Seeing Dyne in such good form was a special treat for me. Later as I reviewed the clips I realised what a powerhouse he is. His rolling polyrhythmic beats reminiscent of the young Alvin Jones. Polyrhythmic drummers often sound as if they are powered by rocket fuel and Dyne did. Allen deftly played three horns (plus gongs) and his nicely open compositional structure permanently altered the time-space-continuum. The clip that I am posting initially took me back to those wonderfully transporting forays of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Keep these space gigs coming people I am up for more.
The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Rd, 29 August 2018, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club. I am finishing this post just a few hours before I fly to Scandinavia. I hope to experience some music as I travel and will post occasionally. Otherwise I’ll be posting as normal in November. I know that I missed a few posts but I hope to catch up over Christmas. Keep following live improvised music people, your inner life depends on it.
It is not often that you attend a gig where a set list covers such a range of styles but still pays due respect to each. If anyone could pull off such a gig; traversing the heights of Monk, Murray McNabb, Frantz Casseus, Bill Frisell and Ornette Colman it was these two. In lesser hands, the trajectory would have faltered, the items come across as disembodied. Here, the connecting threads, however improbable, made perfect sense. The centre held and the arc of the journey was a joyous adventure.
Neil Watson is a musician who musicians flock to hear. He breaks rules and strikes out in directions where few dare to follow. Everyone from Sharrock to Montgomery is referenced in his sound; with a generous pinch of Ribot thrown in for good measure. He sometimes hides in pit bands backing dancing fools, tours with famous country stars, opens for people like Marc Ribot, but whatever he does, he does convincingly. In recent years he purchased a pedal steel guitar and that is now an essential part of his repertoire. He exudes real warmth on stage, both as a storyteller and a musician.
I have only seen David Ward play on the odd occasion but it is always a treat. Like Watson, he is a master of diverse styles and he is particularly noted for his award-winning theatre compositions. He has toured extensively and gained a formidable reputation over the years. In Jazz and alternative music circles, it is the improvising band RUKUS that we mostly associate him with. RUKUS has featured a who’s who of adventurous improvisers such as Chris O’Connor, John Bell, Jeff Henderson, Eamon Edmundson-Wells, Cameron Allen, Finn Scholes & Rui Inaba.
The pairing of Watson and Ward guaranteed that creative sparks would fly. It was always on the cards that they would perform together but until now the opportunity had not presented itself. I am certain that this project will develop from here – logic tells me it has to. The quality of their musicianship was very much on display at the Backbeat Bar. On the three Monk tunes, they either ran unison lines or interwove an intricate counterpoint, and miraculously, the jagged phrases often created a fat Monkish dissonance; each guitarist deliberately landing on different voicings- creating a piano cluster chord effect. This was a quality band as Watson & Ward were backed by Cameron Allen (tenor and Baritone saxophones) Cameron McArthur (upright bass) and Chris O’Connor (drums). Understanding exactly what was required here the three left the lion’s share of the limelight to the guitarists. O’Connor displayed his usual eclectic virtuosity as the drum styles required were many and varied.
At one point Watson played solo, a composition by Frantz Casseus (a folksy classical guitarist who has influenced the likes of Marc Ribot). Out of his Fender came a delicate classical guitar sound – a moment of whispering clarity and magic. The pair also showcased their own compositions and again these contrasted in a good way. Ward’s ‘Mango’, ‘Shebop’ and ‘Hip replacement’ – Watson’s ‘Trash talkin’ (a Western Swing) and his extraordinarily ‘Murray’ – an apt tribute to the lost lamented and much-loved Jazz musician Murray McNabb. Among the tunes, we heard some heartfelt Americana (rare in New Zealand Jazz clubs and it is especially rare to hear Western two-beat Swing).
The high points were many, but I will put up two clips; The first is a Bill Frisell number ‘I am not a farmer’ from his moody atmospheric album ‘Disfamer’. The second up is a short clip where Watson plays a Frantz Casseus tune ‘Improvisations’ solo on Fender.
The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road Auckland for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 15 August 2018.
Chelsea Prastiti was not long back from Cyprus when her band Leda’s Dream appeared at the Backbeat Bar. Prastiti is well known in the Auckland improvised music scene and especially so at the avant-garde end of town. She’s a compelling vocalist and composer who approaches her craft as a free spirit, unfettered by others expectations. When she sings she dives deep and puts herself out there fearlessly but her risk-taking is not a mere academic exercise; it cuts to the very heart of what it means to be a thinking, feeling human. Her compositions are therefore always interesting and out of that a raw beauty and an honesty arise. Although the ensemble played material that we have heard before, they sounded incredibly fresh – even different. Crystal Choi confined herself to accompanying vocals (no keys), Michael Howell stepped further into a measured chordal role and Callum Passells on alto and voice effects was the archetypal minimalist (saying a lot more with less). This felt very right and the re-configuration gave the ensemble a lot more freedom. They stretched out as the spirit took them and the first two tunes filled the entire first set. The voices, in particular, were liberated by the change and this gave wings to the melodic lines and mood. The harmonies were there in spades but that was not what drew you in. It was ‘mood’ and the pictures that those moods created. Prastiti’s is a brave path and I would expect no less from her. This is a musical space that is sparsely populated and more’s the pity. Think Sera Serpa (duos or trios), Think Norma Winstone (Azimuth 85) or perhaps the brilliant Nordic vocalist Sidsel Endresen (Endresen live with Jan Bang). In this ensemble, she has the musicians to give her the freedom she deserves. Passells, who is unafraid of soft trailing notes or of minimalism, Howell who can follow a vamp to eternity and make it sing, Choi who instinctively makes the right moves, and Eamon Edmundson-Wells and Tristen Deck who know when to lay out and when to add colour or texture. The music drew from free improvisation, standard Jazz and deep Folkloric wells. It did so without undue introspection. The band brought the audience along with them and the bouts of enthusiastic applause proved it. For some reason, and it was partly their attire, the gig felt like a postmodern version of a Pre-Raphaelite tableau. Oh yes indeed, that always works for me.
Leda’s Dream: Chelsea Prastiti (vocals, compositions), Crystal Choi (vocals), Michael Howell (guitar), Callum Passells (alto sax, sound effects), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (upright bass), Tristan Deck (drums), Backbeat Bar, 8 August 2018
Tomasz Stanko died two days before the Eamon Dilworth gig and I was feeling the loss. I don’t know why this particular musician’s passing affected me so much but it did. Perhaps it was the untimeliness, a great artist gone too soon. It was as if a vital soundtrack to my life had been placed on pause. As I moped about the house, playing Wislawa and The New York Quartets, I remembered that Dilworth was playing soon and I cheered up immediately. I had reviewed the Viata album a month previously and loved it. I knew that it would be a balm and I knew that it would connect me to that place which Stanko took me. It did.
The Viata album had an astonishing array of gifted musicians on it, Dilworth, Alister Spence, Carl Morgan, Jonathan Zwartz and Paul Derricott. When Dilworth flew into Auckland he was only accompanied by the pianist Spence. The rest of the Auckland lineup would be local pick up musicians. Dilworth has a very distinctive sound and hearing his tunes played on different instruments or by other musicians was going to be interesting. Replacing Morgan on guitar was tenor player Roger Manins, on drums Andy Keegan and on upright bass Wil Goodinson. Manins needs no introduction to Australasian audiences and I was looking forward to hearing him in this context. People associate him with burners and that is his shtick, but Manins is also a master at blowing in these spacious atmospheric situations. I hadn’t seen Andy Keegan for a while but I rate his playing – he thinks through what he’s doing, listens carefully and responds appropriately. The last of the New Zealand players, Wil Goodinson, is a gifted newcomer with big ears, a terrific sound and with great things ahead.
This was the first time that I have heard Alister Spence. He is truly an extraordinary pianist and I could hardly believe what I was hearing. A minimalist whose voicings gave power to the spaces – leaving behind in the wake of each note, a gentle otherworldly dissonance. There were long ostinato passages, often a single chord, which shifted the focus imperceptibly. He crafted minute changes without once losing the ostinato vibe. Floating arpeggiated chords, at times Debussy like – as if Terry Riley had appropriated a Debussy moment and made it airy as it floated heavenward. And all of this creating the perfect platform for Dilworth.
It is a brave musician who explores space with such lightness of touch. Dilworth is exactly the right person to do this. His playing and compositions create dreamscapes, warm interludes from the harshness of the post-truth world. This allows us to rise far above the mundane. It is as much about his worldview as it is about sound. He is a musician who thinks about life and then forges a sonic philosophy out of those musings. It is unmistakably, the sort of sound that ECM thrives on. It is time they profiled an Australian. Here, all is subordinate to mood, with the harmonies often implied; the tempos are measured, nothing is hurried and the melodies are miniatures; elided and markers on an interesting journey. Dilworth utilises the extended techniques in his trumpet playing but there is nothing ostentatious on display. Every whisper of air or long-held note is a story in itself.
We heard most of the album during the night and a tune from his earlier Tiny Hearts album. It was hard to decide which tune to post as a video, but I chose Toran which is the last track on the Viata album. To get the most out of it, sit down, slow your breathing and close your eyes. This is a masterclass in subtlety and well worth the effort. The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, Auckland for the CJC Creative Jazz Club.
This project was bound to happen sometime and it was long overdue. On the night of the bands first gig, the pent-up energy that had long been building found a voice. As they kicked off, the room filled with potent energy and the enthusiasm of the band was met in equal parts by the capacity audience. Steve Sherriff is fondly remembered from Alan Browns Blue Train days and he brought with him an interesting group of musicians. Most of them were compatriates from earlier bands and their familiarity with each other musically paid dividends.
On keyboards, was Alan Brown and this was an obvious and very good choice. Brown has a long history with Sherriff and this was evident as they interacted. On trumpet was the veteran Mike Booth; a musician more than capable of navigating complex ensemble situations and delivering strong solos. Ron Samsom was on drums, another well-matched band member, ever urging the band to ever greater heights as he mixed organic grooves with a hard swing feel. Then there was Neil Watson on pedal steel and fender guitars and Jo Shum on electric and acoustic bass. When you put a group of strong soloists and leaders together there is a degree risk, but these musicians worked in perfect lock-step. As in sync as they were, Sherriff was the dominant presence on stage and no one doubted who the leader was.
Sherriff is a fine saxophonist with a compelling tone on each of his horns. On this gig, he alternated between tenor and soprano (though he sometimes plays alto in orchestral lineups). He has an individual sound and it is especially noticeable on tenor ballads and on tunes where he plays soprano. His other strength lies in his compositions. He and Brown contributed all of the numbers for this gig, but in future, other band members will be contributing also. This was small-ensemble writing of the highest order – tightly focused – melodically and harmonically pleasing. The faster-paced numbers were reminiscent of hard bop – the ballads memorably beautiful. Brown and Sherriff set a high compositional bar.
It was Watson though, who took the most risks and the audience just loved it. At times he appeared to be stress testing his Fender as he bent strings and made the guitar wail. At other times he was the straight-ahead guitarist in Kenny Burrell mode – then on a ballad number, he would gently coax his pedal steel guitar and play with such warmth and subtlety that you sighed with pleasure. It had been a while since I’d seen Jo Shum perform and this was a setting where she shone.
Although the band was only formed recently, they will be ready to record sometime in the near future. The material and the synergy of the band is just too good to squander.
Steve Sherriff (compositions, leader, saxophones), Alan Brown (keyboard, compositions), Mike Booth (trumpet), Neil Watson (pedal steel and Fender guitar), Jo Shum (upright + electric bass), Ron Samsom (drums). The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, Auckland, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, July 25, 2018.
So many great improvising artists gig on our New Zealand and Australian club circuits that we could easily become complacent and we shouldn’t be. This golden age for hearing hi-quality live Jazz is the result of hard work behind the scenes, and a dedicated few, mostly volunteers, make this happen for us. They deserve our thanks and above all, they deserve our commitment to the cause of live music. This year and last year were especially interesting at the CJC, as the breadth and quality of the music hit new highs. What the performing artists put into these tours or gigs is beyond estimation – but we, the audiences are lucky; all we have to do is climb out of our chairs, throw on a coat (yes it is cold out but warm as toast in the venues) and experience the magic.
For the second time in less than a month, we had a pre-eminent and award-winning Australian vocalist in our city, Michelle Nicolle. A quick perusal of her YouTube clips or pages is quite enough to reel you in; experiencing her quartet live is a great Jazz experience. Nicolle has a big voice and a voice with an astonishing vocal range. In spite of that, she is remarkably expressive, even at a whisper. Her quartet has a long history together and because of that, the accompanying musicians know how to react to the vocalists every nuance. Good accompanists know when to hold back and when to answer a phrase and they did. They gifted the tunes a spaciousness, allowing the notes or phrases to breathe and their good judgement caused the lyrics to flow with ease.
The setlist was a mix of originals and standards, many of the standards being Ellington or Strayhorn tunes. Her own compositions although different in flavour were a bridge between past and present, updating the sentiments that Strayhorn often expressed, but dressing them in modern clothing. ‘Drop that smile’ being a good example. There was a very tasteful interpretation of Cole Porters ‘So in Love’ and a great rendition of Ornette Coleman’s ‘The blessing’, but as good as those tunes were, it was her Strayhorn that captivated.
On guitar was the impeccable vocal accompanist Geoff Hughes (reputed to be an expat Kiwi), on upright bass was Tom Lee and on drums Ronny Ferella. No wonder the quartet received a Bell Award in 2017. The clip is ‘The Days of Wine & Roses’ from an earlier MNQ tour and possibly with a different guitarist.
The concert occurred during the days immediately proceeding the Wellington International Jazz festival and it was cold and wet outside. In spite of that, those who were still in town wrapped up and made their way to the Backbeat Bar and everyone who braved the cold was very glad that they did.
MNQ: Michelle Nicolle (vocals, composition), Geoff Hughes (guitar), Tom Lee (bass), Ronny Ferella (drums). The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, Auckland, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club. June 06, 2018.
Wednesday 30th May was the Auckland launch of Sumo’s second album titled ‘Shiko’. I am reliably informed that Shiko is a stamping motion which Sumo wrestlers perfect during training. The action drives away evil spirits and when you hear the band, the descriptor strikes you as appropriate. Suspense and surprise are hallmarks of this unit and as in Sumo wrestling, you get theatre, tricky moves, tradition and a degree of inscrutability. Above all, they showcase quality improvised music.
The compositions were the first thing that interested me. Some were warm ballads, but mostly they were propulsive tunes with a compelling forward momentum. Sumo is billed as a quartet, but they regularly invite guests to perform with them and they encourage the guests to bring original compositions to the bandstand. This concept always works, as the best, improvised music arises out of challenges and tensions. Complacency is death in Jazz. The guest on this night was the talented Christchurch guitarist Brad Kang. I had heard his name mentioned by visiting musicians, but I had never heard him perform. He has a real presence on the bandstand and his effortless post-Rosenwinkel runs are jaw-dropping. He made it all look easy when clearly it was not.
The core group is Gwyn Reynolds on tenor saxophone, Darren Pickering on keys, Mike Story on bass and Joe McCallum on drums. During the evening we heard compositions from all of them and their different compositional approaches made the sets interesting. I like bands that exude human qualities rather than mechanical ones and underpinning this group was a warmth and an interconnectedness. Together they have a great sound and it is no wonder that Roger Manins had been trying to lure them north for some time. If there were any lurking bad spirits around that night they stood no chance of survival.
Sumo: Gwyn Reynolds (tenor saxophone), Darren Pickering (keys), Mike Story (upright bass), Joe McCallum (drums) plus Brad Kang (guitar). The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, Auckland for the CJC Creative Jazz Club. May 30, 2018.
When Kristin Berardi, Sean Foran and Raphael Karlen started to play I knew exactly what I was hearing. It was modern and original and it rekindled fond memories of the Winstone/Wheeler/Taylor group Azimuth. A world of beautifully crafted harmonies communicating their message with effortless clarity; the individual voices of the musicians hovering in the air like free spirits but interconnecting in profound ways. There was also a contemplative essence to their music which took us deep inside the music, a quiet centre that emanated strength and vibrancy. This fine balance of opposites was evident throughout – it was a performance to remember for its soul touching beauty.
This was the band’s first stop on a whirlwind tour of New Zealand and as soon as the weather gods realised that Queenslanders were approaching they behaved capriciously. As Brisbaneites, imagine the shock of leaving 24-degree temperatures, only to be greeted in Auckland by an unseasonable 13 degrees. Berardi told us that her under-utilised ‘warm coat’ was finally getting an outing. The temperature shock certainly didn’t hold the trio back, and those who braved the wet and cold were well rewarded for their perseverance.
Berardi, Foran and Karlen are well-respected musicians in their own right. All are well recorded and between them, they have many significant music awards. This project is their first collaboration as a trio and their recent album titled ‘Hope in your pocket’ was available at the gig. That album has a particular theme as it captures the dislocation and poignancy of Australian family life during WW1: a mothers letter to a 15-year son who had enlisted far too young, a soldier struggling to comprehend the wasteland of the European battlefields, a nurses story, a family holding fast to hope.
Many of the tunes were based on actual letters written at the time. All of them moving and all disquietening. Perhaps to leaven the mood, a few older or more recent compositions featured. For example, the first number of the first set, Berardi’s ‘Revolving Doors’. I have posted that clip here as it was simply stunning. Later when talking to the pianist Foran I mention Azimuth and he acknowledged the trios debt to that music. He was once a pupil of the lost lamented John Taylor and very familiar with the northern European Jazz scene. Foran is a gifted educator and a pianist with a beautifully light touch. He has interesting things to say musically and his minimalism is exactly right for this trio.
The vocalist Berardi is highly regarded in Australia. Among her successes are two Bell awards and the best vocalist award at Montreux. On a subsequent Montreux visit, she accompanied Al Jarreau and George Benson. She also completed a project with the inimitable Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra. The saxophonist Raphael Karlen is another gifted musician – also the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships. Together they are formidable. For those in Wellington or Christchurch about to attend the gigs, savour it. For those who are tossing up whether to go – make the effort. You won’t regret it.
Kristin Berardi (compositions, vocals), Sean Foran (compositions, piano), Raphael Karlen (compositions, tenor saxophone). The performance was at the Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club, May 23rd, 2018.
Jeff 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).
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.
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.
After a year of living in Paris the Auckland educator and pianist Phil Broadhurst and his partner, Julie Mason, have returned. The Broadhurst Quintet has been a regular feature on the Auckland scene for many years. The unit is fueled by a constant stream of great compositions, an unchanging line up of fine musicians and three critically acclaimed records (one of them a Tui Jazz Album of the year winner). Broadhurst’s ‘dedication trilogy’ set a high bar compositionally, but his pen is always crafting new compositions. After last weeks gig, I suspect that another album capturing the artistic soul of France might be in gestation. Broadhurst, as many will know, is unashamedly francophile. Out of this deep appreciation and finely honed perception flows terrific creations.
When people talk about the Auckland Jazz scene, the name Phil Broadhurst always comes up. His constancy has been a bedrock and an enabling presence. He is an exemplar of quality mainstream Jazz. When I looked back over my posts I noticed that this particular Quintet was first reviewed by me in 2012 but I have no doubt that it predates 2012. When so many people crowd into a small club it makes the sight-lines difficult, but I have managed to capture a number from his gig.
The tune in the clip is called ‘Stretched’ and it is from his ‘Flaubert’s Dance’ Album. One of Phils newer compositions was titled ‘I’m Busy’ (dedicated to Jacky Terrasson). We also heard two lesser-known Jazz standards from Julie Mason. The first was ‘You taught my heart to Sing’, a tune by the pianist McCoy Tyner; the second, ‘Speak no Evil’ by Wayne Shorter from his classic album of the same name (incidentally, a great album to play on a road trip as you plunge into the black of night).
The quintet personnel are Phil Broadhurst (leader, composer, keyboards), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Mike Booth (flugelhorn), Oli Holland (bass, composition), Cameron Sangster (drums). The gig was at the Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club, May 02, 2018.
Roger Manins and Oli Holland have just returned from an extended overseas trip. While there, Holland recorded an album with Geoffry Keezer and others (incl. Roger Manins). From what I hear, a real treat is in store for us when that album is released.
This is the second appearance of Flightless Birds at the CJC Creative Jazz Club and the audience flocked to hear them. The band is a history lesson to the initiated and an initiation to those unversed in Jazz history. They presented a programme that was both clever and accessible and therein lay its charm. The band specialises in contrafacts and especially those of the bebop and swing era. The inside joke is that many of those tunes were once contrafacts themselves; new and often frenetic tunes written over the changes of familiar ‘songbook’ standards. In the bebop era tunes like ‘Cherokee’ (Noble) became Ko-Ko (Parker), ‘I Got Rhythm’ (Gershwin) became ‘Dizzie Atmosphere’ (Gillespie). Musicians like Charles Mingus took things a step further by introducing a wry political humour into titles, exemplified in his contrafact ‘All the things you could be by now if Sigmond Freud’s mother was your wife’ was ‘All the things you are’ (Kern). A throwaway favourite of mine is ‘Byas a Drink’ (Don Byas) which is ‘Stompin at the Savoy’ (Sampson).
The above examples are more than a play on words, they are fiendishly clever compositions and sometimes as famous than the tunes they arose from. This was not cleverness for cleverness sake but a bold in your face statement arising from the ongoing struggle of African American Jazz musicians who were tired of being sidelined for jobs, or sent to the back door of the hotel. Especially at a time when many of the inferior white bands cashed in doing the same material, often rising to superstardom. It was also about having fun and mocking the incredulity of the music press. They did it because they could and they were extraordinary musicians who used their intellect to brand a new music. This band is a modern antipodean successor, DNA intact.
The Flightless Birds took this concept a logical step further and not only created contrafacts out of contrafacts but they hinted at or altered the embedded ‘quotes’ and references. It was done with a smile but it was also done with a certain reverence. The times that these tunes arose from were acknowledged, but the joy and eternal spirit of Dizzy et al shone through. Here are a few of the gig tunes and their origins: ‘Stephen Thomas’ (Tom Dennison) is over the changes of ‘St Thomas’ (Sonny Rollins). There is a world of referencing right there (posted as a YouTube Clip). Stephen Thomas is, of course, the gifted Auckland drummer. ‘Buy a Car’ (Passells) utilised the changes of ‘Take the A Train’ (Strayhorn), ‘J Y Lee’ (Passells) was naturally ‘Donna Lee’ (Parker), ‘The Punisher’ (Sinclair) was a great new arrangement based on the changes of ‘In a Mellow Tone’ (Ellington) and so on. This was a fun night. Passells announcements were entertaining (as they always are) and above all the band looked as if they were enjoying themselves. We were also.
Flightless Birds: Callum Passells (alto saxophone, Compositions), Ben Sinclair (tenor saxophone, compositions) Tom Dennison (bass, compositions), Adam Tobeck (drums). The gig was at the Backbeat bar, K’Road, Auckland, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club on April 25, 2018.
This particular group is an uncommon thing on the Auckland scene. A Jazz guitar trio formed by three of our best musicians and each of the musicians in it for the long haul. Samsom/Nacey/Haines have been playing and recording together for a long time and the commitment has remained constant throughout. Their longevity is clearly about musical chemistry, but also about their combined approach to composition. Each band member writes in their own style, but each instinctively understands how the others will react to the chart. This is how mature bands operate; the familiarity enabling the collective to dive into the heart of a composition and extract the best from it. While their original compositions form the bedrock of their output, they also tackle standards; especially when performing live.
Their approach to standards and the arrangement of them is flawless; leading you away from the familiar, while somehow retaining an essence of what you know and how you remember it. This ability to interpret while mixing comfort and risk in equal parts is a gift. It requires a degree of expertise that younger bands seldom possess. Samsom, Nacey and Haines know a thing or two about focusing the attention and on challenging audiences to listen more deeply. They have recorded three acclaimed albums already and a fourth is almost certainly lurking in the wings.
There were a quite few new compositions (some as yet untitled), some familiar tunes from earlier albums and a tasteful assortment of cleverly arranged standards. Three of the standards grabbed my attention: Nica’s Dream (Horace Silver), In Your Own Sweet Way (Dave Brubeck) and Detour Ahead (Herb Ellis/ Johnny Frigo). I have posted a clip of the Brubeck number as it typifies the adventurous nature of the trio. True improvisers often extract gold from this composition, a case in point being Brubeck himself. He seldom played it the same way twice and on a 1964 Belgian clip, he exposes the bones while Desmond lays down a new tune entirely (a miraculous example of melodic re-invention captured on film for posterity).
Anyone of the musicians could have introduced these tunes, but the duties fell to Kevin Haines. His easy-going banter struck just the right note. He was engaging and above all funny. I have often observed how easily this comes to the more seasoned performers. Years of standing at the microphone teach them that a few well-chosen words can enhance any performance – especially a good performance.
Samsom/Nacey/Haines are – Ron Samson (drums, compositions), Dixon Nacey (guitar, compositions), Kevin Haines (upright bass, compositions). The gig was at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, on April 18, 2018.
I have listened to John Bell over a number of years and I have always marvelled at his inventiveness. Bell (along with Jeff Henderson), is widely acknowledged as the experimental music guy, the free improvisation guy. He is a musician who takes risks as he aims for clear skies; a musician who involves himself in interesting cross-cultural collaborations, a vibraharp player who doubles on brass instruments. He is an artist who you always associate with innovation – consequently, other musicians look up to him.
In spite of his wide-ranging credentials, I had never seen him perform this type of material and I anticipated it keenly. His latest project, the Aldebaran Quartet, dove into the explorations of a specific era. The warm modal music of the late sixties and seventies. A time in Jazz when the behemoth of Rock dominated the airwaves and filled record shelves – eclipsing everything else in view. It is unfortunate that audiences looked away just then because out of that era came a heady brew of fresh ideas. Hidden in plain sight were improvising trailblazers; laying down wonderful music, incorporating new freedoms, and embracing a quasi-secular space age spirituality. This was the era when Bobby Hutcherson and Herbie Hancock took a new direction with ‘Oblique’ – when Chick Corea cut ‘Tones for Jones Bones’; both albums featuring the scandalously underrated drummer (and vibes player) Joe Chambers: an era when Eddie Henderson released ‘Sunburst’, Bernie Maupin ‘The Jewel in the Lotus’, and when Alice Coltrane and Don Pullen broke new ground. And all the while looking toward some distant star system or an inner world; all bringing a new flavour to the improvised music scene.
This was a gig filled with mesmerizing soulfulness, but underneath the shimmering sound lay some very clever compositions and great musicianship; referencing a time when modal music stepped free from the formulaic. An era ripe for further exploration. This was complex music made to sound simple; a visceral music that took you to its heart without the need for pointy-headed insider knowledge. The track I have posted is a good example, the lessons of eastern and western music, absorbed, expanded and all without a hint of contrivance. Melodic patterns over a crisp undulating drum pulse, piano and bass picking up the pattern, in unison or in response, freeing the vibraharp to explore the possibilities as they opened up space. The tune in question ‘Atagato’ (Bell) is a wonderful composition. It resonates deeply, the complexity artfully hidden behind simple themes, throwing up a melody line that is merely implied. The clever musical devices employed were endless but for the listeners, that was not important – it was the immediacy, the resonance which touched us. Bell is a true tintinnabulist and we are lucky to have him home.
When Vibes and piano play together they often take a different tack from that of guitar and piano. Occupying the same tonal range is avoided in the latter case but with piano and vibes, a unison approach is frequently employed. When either piano or vibes are comping the chords can become mirrors – reflecting each other but varying fractionally to add texture; completing each other through the harmonics arising from their different timbres. In this respect and others, the pianist Phil Broadhurst was superb. Again, I am very familiar with his output, but I had never heard him in this context. His solos were in the pocket and his sensitive comping concise, supportive.
Bass player Eamon Edmundson-Wells was just right for this gig. Like Bell, Edmundson-Wells has a firm foothold in the avant-garde scene. The more I hear him the higher my regard for his musicality. He is an extraordinary young bass player and capable in any given situation. The remaining quartet member was drummer Steve Cournane. From the first few beats, he stamped his authority. His rhythmic feel interesting and a little different from other drummers about town. He lived in South America for some time and it’s really good to see him back on the scene. There is something of the classic Jazz fusion drummer about him but more besides (he sometimes reminds me of Peter Erskine or perhaps Lenny White). Together they form a great unit. I hope that they record this material and perhaps exchange the keyboards for an acoustic piano when they do. These compositions and this unit are far too enjoyable to disappear from earshot.
John Bell: Aldebaran Quartet – Bell (vibraharp, compositions), Phil Broadhurst (keyboards, compositions), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (upright bass), Steve Cournane (drums). The gig took place at the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Backbeat Bar, K’Road, Auckland March 2018.