Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, Small ensemble

Tales of the Diaspora – Mark Donlon

DonlonThe UK born Mark Donlon is an internationally renowned musician who joined the New Zealand School of Music as a senior lecturer in Jazz Piano in 2013. He has previously appeared at Auckland’s CJC, but never with a quintet. The small ensemble format is clearly a forte as it revealed his many skills. After hearing his recent recording and attending the CJC gig it was evident to me that this particular project hit a sweet spot. What we heard on Wednesday was something special.  An evocative programme built around stories of displaced peoples.

There is no separating a good musician from their musical origins and Donlon wears his origins on his compositional sleeve. I am not referring to nationality but to something more ethereal. That wellspring of melodic and harmonic invention that bubbles from the musical homeland and feeds sonic identity. If I didn’t pick it up before I certainly did this time, an unmistakable sound.  A sound manifest in John Taylor, John Surman and expat Canadian, Kenny Wheeler – perhaps it is strongest in Guildhall musicians. Wheeler was referenced several times and early into the first set the quintet played a superb version of his ‘Kind Folk’.  Donlon’s original compositions, the rest, also capturing that very English and often wistful vibe. That and the slick head arrangements setting the tone – perfect vehicles for the tales he told.  

This type of composition is sometimes characterised as sad (or dark), but I hear more than that in Donlon (or Wheeler). I prefer the word melancholy in its Shakespearian sense. “A melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, which by rumination, wraps me in the most humorous sadness”.   Shakespeare knew that emotion is seldom one dimensional. 

The music also speaks of human dignity in the face of oppression, the titles traversing the sweep of history – of personal loss. There’s ‘Aleppo’, a lovely tune about a tragic city, trampled under the boots of sectarian and superpower violence – this, aptly told by juxtaposing dissonance and sweetness. There’s ‘Windrush’, the story of the Jamaican immigrants and their history of mistreatment – more recently at the hands of Brexiteer Amber Rudd. Then there’s ‘Zanj’, the old word for an African slave.  While the topic may be grim, the musical treatment is not devoid of hope. Good composers do not resile from such difficult topics; they aim to touch our hearts, offer up hope, and this did. Donlon (1)

That the album is so good is not surprising, given the New York heavyweights on board; Alex Sipiagin and Seamus Blake for starters.  Appearing at the CJC was a Wellington lineup; Mark Donlon (piano), Louisa Williamson (saxophone), Luca Sturney (guitar), Lance Philip (drums) and Seth Boy (bass).  It’s been a while since I heard Louisa Williamson and these days, she is everything that she is hyped to be. A stunning performer with a silky tone and a plethora of coherent ideas flowing from her horn. Her use of dynamics is minimal, but this is not a deficit.  She conveys her message through skillful phrasing and the delivery of imaginative lines.  I had not seen Luca Sturney before but his musical abilities are unmistakeable (what a nice sound and what solid solos). The same with Seth Boy.  Lastly, there is Lance Philip, who along with Donlon, is the veteran in the lineup. An incredibly able drummer who covers all styles and who lifts any performance. Donlon was obviously thrilled to have him on the tour, and no wonder.

The track I have posted on YouTube is from the CJC gig and titled ‘Zanj’ – ‘The NY album is available from fuzzymoonrecords.co.uk or from Mark Donlon, New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University Wellington – he has a facebook page – The gig took place at Backbeat, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland, 8 May 2019.

Album: Mark Donlon (piano, compositions), Alex Sipiagin (trumpet, flugelhorn), Seamus Blake(saxophone), Boris Kozlov (Bass), Donald Edwards (drums).

Auckland gig: Mark Donlon (piano), Louisa Williamson (saxophone), Luca Sturney (guitar), Seth Boy (bass), Lance Philip (drums)

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CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium, vocal

Lauren Nottingham Tour

 Whenever a young and talented vocal improviser appears on the scene, it piques the interest of Jazz lovers and beyond. Lauren Nottingham fits this bill perfectly and she is definitely someone we should take notice of. She is bound to have an upwards career trajectory over the coming years and with the talented pianist Mark Donlon as a collaborator, this is all the more assured. She has previously toured as co-leader with Donlon, but this time she stepped out as sole leader.

The setlist was a mixture of original compositions and reharmonized standards from well outside of the Jazz songbook; David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Stole The World’ and The Beatles ‘Lady Madonna’ (McCartney). Both of the latter went down well. There were also a number of compositions by a singer-songwriter Matt Sagen and above all Nottingham’s own offerings. We also heard a tune by her drummer and one by Donlon. Her satirical ‘You can’t spell triumph without Trump’  and ‘Who you are’ felt personal while the composition ‘On a rooftop in China’, composed by drummer Dexter Stanley-Tauvao had a delightfully swinging feel to it. I have posted Donlon’s tune titled ‘Sarabande’ (Nottingham wrote the lyrics for this).  This was a nice band all round with tasteful playing from Beernink and Stanley-Tauvao.

Nottingham began singing publically at around the age of fourteen and before long she was singing in the National Youth Choir. She always had an interest in Jazz and in her senior year won a competition run by the NZSM. Later she completed a Jazz Studies degree with the NZSM. Following that she spent a year in Berlin, where according to her bio, she worked in a Jazz bar and did a lot of listening. For any developing artist, moving out of their comfort zone is important as academic learning is only a starting point; character and authenticity arise from life experience. The harder won and the greater the risks the better the stories. Nottingham through composition and her vocal interpretations has tales to tell us and her original approach is already evident.

Some time ago I heard a different tune by Donlon also titled ‘Sarabande’. I particularly love this latter one, as in Nottingham’s hands, the tune conveys a crystalline and even a lachrymose quality – entirely fitting for the wistful sarabande; that slow dance beloved of Baroque composers and with ancient Spanish origins. My only complaint about the gig – I hope that we get more wordless vocalising next time – we love her doing this (ref. her work with Mark Donlon’s Shadowbird Quartet).

The Band: Lauren Nottingham – leader, vocals, Mark Donlon – piano, Chris Beernink – bass, Dexter Stanley-Tauvao – drums. The gig took place at The Backbeat Bar for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), November 14, 2018.

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Piano Jazz, Straight ahead

Mark Donlon’s Shadowbird Quartet

Donlon 087This is pianist Mark Donlon’s second appearance at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club). On this visit, his Shadowbird Quartet featured Aucklanders Roger Manins on Saxophone and Cameron McArthur on bass. The gig also brought Wellington drummer Lance Philip to the CJC for the first time. Both the bass player and the drummer have previously recorded with Donlon. The British-born pianist, educator, conductor is the senior lecturer at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington

Mark Donlon is a highly competent musician and much praised by luminaries such as the UK’s John Fordham. When you hear him play, working his clever compositions, you hear why. As much as I appreciate technical skills it is the human connection I look for and I found it in two Donlon compositions. Making such connections is about locating musical intersections – the place where energies and paths meet. When audience and artist reach for that elusive space, communication happens. The artist creates, the audience gives back. For that instant, time and the music are outside of self and the performance more than the sum of its parts.

Every good tune has a back story. Sometimes the banter provides a map, enabling the listener to probe deeper. It is especially so with new compositions. At other times, the meta-data of a tune embeds in its DNA as with a standard or a contrafact. A standard takes you to a place you have been before, but a new composition asks us as listeners, to imagine. While melody, pulse, and harmony draw us in, a few well-chosen words can conjure additional imagery. Active listening is about more than sound; context matters.Donlon 090The first tune of the second set was ‘Nibiru’ and it was rich in narrative and melody. A thing of strange and compelling beauty. The piece began with a repeating pattern on piano, a pattern which shifted harmonically as it progressed. Over this Manins began by stating the melody – seldom straying far from the matrix in the opening stages. McArthur on bass intensified the mood by establishing a counter pattern and then repeatedly plucking at a single note, Philip free to add colour and texture – and he did. I liked this piece very much as it sounded both old and new (a nice effect if you can pull that off). The story behind it added another dimension entirely. ‘Nibiru’ is an imaginary planet beloved of conspiracy theorists, the ones who wear tin-foil helmets when venturing outside. The ones who see an absense of smoke as conclusive proof that the fire is well hidden. The planet evidently reveals itself to the chosen few and is the home of lizard people. I’m not so sure that the believers deserve a tune this nice. The tongue in cheek rendering of this odd belief is anything but ‘end of times’.

The other tune I liked was ‘Otzi’. It referenced a 4000-year-old ‘Ice Man’ mummy found on the alpine border between Austria and Italy. I had followed this story from the day of his discovery in 1991. Although it struck a deep chord at the time I had forgotten the Ice Man’s nickname. What Donlon captured so effectively was the melancholia. The story of a human ancestor from pre-history, who wandered into our modern consciousness after a long time lost. Apart from Tutankhamun, no figure from that era has touched us so deeply. Otzi trails echoes of sadness in his wake. A palpable sadness which his family must have felt, never knowing what become of him. I think Otzi would have loved this melancholic piece; as much as the modern harmonies would have puzzled him.Donlon 088You would expect a group of musicians of this calibre to play well and they  did. There are two Donlon albums out shortly and a few earlier ones available. Support local music by experiencing this artist or the bands various iterations. One place to do that will be at the Wellington Jazz Festival in early June.

A few facts about Otzi: Although Otzi came from the Italian side of the alps, he has 19 known descendants living in Austria today. In spite of suffering from some mobility limiting health issues, he set out on his journey well equipped for alpine travel (better than many trampers of today). He had tatoos from head to foot (the earliest known inker) and his last meal consisted of pollen, grain and goats meat.

The Shadowbird Quartet: Mark Donlon (piano, compositions), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (bass), Lance Philip (drums). CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel May 11th 2016.

 

 

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Piano Jazz, Post Bop

Mark Donlon Trio (with Tom Warrington)

Donlon (2) The Mark Donlon trio gig gave us two leaders for the price of one. Accompanying Donlon was the highly rated LA bass player Tom Warrington. Jazz audiences in New Zealand are very familiar with Warrington as he toured here on many occasions. Donlon, originally from the UK is now living in Wellington and working as the Jazz Studies program leader at the New Zealand School of Music.

Donlon is a Post-bop pianist with a grab-bag of familiar standards and a number of original compositions at his fingertips. He is also adept at writing ‘contrafacts’; new tunes written over the changes of existing standards. While such practices are strongly associated with Parker or with innovative Post-bop improvisers, the practice actually dates from to 16th century. Some of the standards were reharmonised while he played others in familiar ways. It was a nice selection; including the song book standards ‘If I were a bell’ (Frank Loesser), ‘Darn that dream’ (Jimmy Van Heusen), ‘How deep is the ocean’ (Irving Berlin), ‘Quiet nights & quiet stars’ ( Tom Jobim) and Jazz standards like ‘Stolen Moments’ (Oliver Nelson) and ‘Nutty’ (Thelonious Monk). When I hear songbook standards by Berlin like’ How deep is the ocean’ or the equally engaging ‘Lets face the music and dance’ I am awe-struck. They are perennial in the fullest sense of the word and I hope that their star never wanes.Donlon (3)I have been a Tom Warrington fan for many years and I have most of the Jazz Compass albums where he features to such great effect. He is a bass player who speaks with incredible forthrightness, but never undermining the others on the date. On ‘Corduroy Road’, a fabulous album that I play often, the ‘others’ I refer to are Larry Koonse and Joe Labarbera. These guys can do no wrong; their version of ‘You Must believe in Spring’ (Bergman/Bergman/Legrand) is a small masterpiece.  We are lucky to have such a strong association with Warrington and Rodger Fox is the one to thank for that. I last saw him during the ‘Cow Bop’ tour, where his band shared the stage with guitarist Bruce Forman (and the Cow boppers). A friendly modest man of enormous talents and good company. When I spoke to him last Wednesday I learned that Larry Koonse (and perhaps Joe Lababera) will be touring New Zealand soon. Koonse has suffered health problems of late but he is evidently recovering well. Warrington’s recording credits are too numerous to mention. Tom is now domiciled in this country which is very good news.DonlonCory Champion although Wellington based is no stranger to the CJC. He was there earlier in the year with Matt Steele’s ‘Master Brewers’. He writes and plays well and it is likely that we will see him in the drum chair often.

The Mark Donlon Trio with Tom Warrington and Cory Champion: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland. 2nd September 2015