CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Jazz April, Piano Jazz, Straight ahead

Mark Isaacs 2015 @ CJC

Mark Isaacs 072Mark Isaacs is an important and highly respected Australian musician and it was a pleasure to see him in Auckland again. It was October 2013 when he last visited and since then he has been busy with the presentation of his symphony and a number of other noteworthy projects. He is a celebrated Jazz and classical musician and he continues to excel in both genres. Musicians like this are rare, as the two disciplines require very different approaches. When you talk to Isaacs you realise that he is passionate about both. He respects the art forms far too much to settle for anything less than his best. In either genre.

I once recall naively asking a visiting musician whether the ability to perform at the highest level on an array of difficult instruments was a unique skill. I have never forgotten the answer. “No it’s the outcome of hard work and an exponential increase in practice time. Every instrument you play is practiced equally and intensively’. I am certain that the same would apply to working across different genres.  That said, I suspect that attitude and aptitude are still somewhere in the mix.Mark Isaacs 071 (2)

Nothing annoys musicians more than being told that what they do is the result of a gift. It implies that the results come easily to them. Having great chops is only the starting point, as there is more to a successful Jazz musician than technique. Deep level communications are necessary and for a performance to work well, everyone must connect. Musician to musician and musicians to audience. Having something original to say and saying it well is something Mark Isaacs understands. Those performing at this level bring something unique to the equation. Something of themselves. An essence drawn from experience and an intuitive understanding of how time works. No matter how good a pianist, bass player or drummer, a piano trio is still a collaboration. Isaacs must have been happy with Holland and Samsom. They are two of our best musicians. Mark Isaacs 072 (2)

Isaacs comes from an exceptional musical family with a lineage stretching back to the Stephane Grapelli band and probably beyond that. Knowing the depth of his classical and Jazz heritage gives an added perspective to his multifaceted career trajectory.

I missed the first few numbers and arrived at the CJC just as the trio were warming up. The first number I heard was Kenny Dorham’s ‘Blue Bossa’. A much-loved standard that has remained extremely popular. Good improvising musicians extract gold from compositions like this (and often without needing to deviate far from the traditional chart). This was a night of wonderful standards played to perfection. Hearing a superb pianist and a solid rhythm section performing in such an intimate space is something Jazz fans live for. Everyone there experienced the warm glow. A warmth that only nights like this can impart. I truly wish Isaacs lived a lot closer. My appetite for his playing is far from being satisfied. Mark Isaacs 071 (4)My late arrival was due to a previous gig and as I walked in, the sound enveloped me completely. Before I had settled Ron Samsom had grinned in my direction, Oli Holland had poked out his tongue and Mark Isaacs had given a quick wave (mid solo). With those brief gestures the realisation swept over me that this club and these musicians are family. A. J. a club regular grabbed me in the break and said tongue in cheek, “Thank god your here man, the universe has realigned”.  Ron Samsom the drummer added, “Yeah it took us a while to settle because there were two strangers in YOUR chair and you were nowhere to be seen”. I guess I am like the guy who lives perpetually on the bar stool of his local bar.  Sort of Jazz furniture.

A performance of Mark Isaacs ‘Symphony’ has been professionally filmed and it was recently purchased by the ‘SKY Arts’ channel. It plays in New Zealand on the 10th June at 8pm.  Please support this important work by watching and perhaps writing to SKY Arts and saying how much we appreciate seeing material like this (The same for the recent Mike Nock/Contemporary Dance film on SKY Arts). These are important artists and landmark events. We live in a crass market-driven world where the Philistines try to dictate our taste. Without our support these amazing artists can struggle for wider recognition. Writing to encourage the purchase of such films is the least we can do by way of thanks. Remember, this works best as a collective enterprise and all of us have a role to play in this.

What: Mark Isaacs Trio – Mark Isaacs (piano), Oli Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand, Wednesday 22nd April 2015

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Avant-garde, experimental improvised music, USA and Beyond

‘Encounters’ – Mark Isaacs – Dave Holland – Roy Haynes

Mark Issacs Encounters

Mark Isaacs’ ground breaking ‘Encounters’ album has just been re-released for the third time and no wonder.  This is an important musical statement by any measure and it sits comfortably beside similar works by Jarrett and Corea.   I don’t say that lightly, as the aforementioned artists explorations into free improvisation set lofty benchmarks.

Mark Isaacs is somewhat of a prodigy as he works across all genres of Jazz, is a gifted composer and has a well established classical career.  His Jazz charts are particularly impressive as he often voices his pieces in modern and compelling ways.  As if that were not enough he has composed a symphony (recently performed by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra – I have heard this impressive work).  Because Mark is such a multi faceted artist it is harder to buttonhole him and perhaps that is the point.  Great musicians shouldn’t be pinned down.   It is the nature of improvised music that it constantly shifts like the coloured grains of sand in a great Mandala; elusive and yet leaving an indelible image behind.  When it’s done well the impressions that remain will outdo the notation.  This album achieves that.

Because the album has not been available since 1995 I hadn’t heard it before.  When I did it truly surprised me.  I was expecting a good album as the triumvirate of Isaacs, Holland and Haynes creates high expectations.  What I was unprepared for was just how deeply it affected me.   To explain this better a back-story is required .  An indication of how this album came to be.

The recording dates from 1988.  This was a time when the mainstream music world had become mired in techno-commercialism and to the credit of the Jazz community it chose to delve deeper into experimental music; pushing harder against musical boundaries.   This was the time of Jarrett’s ‘Changeless’ and ‘Dark Intervals’ albums and discriminating listeners were up for it.  Dave Holland was no stranger to this type of project as he had participated in and initiated many avant-garde projects since the sixties.   Mark Isaacs (an Australian) was in New York at the time having just heard some of his chamber works performed by the Australian Ensemble in Carnegie Hall.   He felt ready to record something challenging so he contacted Dave Holland who immediately agreed to participate.  I am not sure how Roy Haynes came to the project but the choice was fortuitous.  A bop-pioneer drummer who had played with Lester Young and Charlie Parker plus a cutting edge experimentalist bass player were on board.  Both had played in Miles Davis bands (but not at the same time).  Both had an interest in the avant-garde.

No rehearsals were held, no charts used and none of these artists had ever played together before.  What you have here is a tight rope act undertaken by an Australian, an ex-pat Englishman and a New Yorker.  The result could have fallen flat but what happened was truly amazing.  Deep intuitive communication and an interplay which sounded more like a trio that had been together for years, not minutes.  In this recording there is a profound sense of space and limitless vistas seem to unfold before you.  The album is just over thirty minutes long and packed within that thirty minutes is a world of diversity.   At certain points one or other of the musicians is leading the conversation, while at other points they appear to seize upon an idea at the same time.  This is artistry of the highest order and I urge anyone reading this to purchase a copy while stocks last.

It is available on iTunes but as an audiophile I recommend that you purchase the CD.  The recording quality is superb and the sound so immediate that you gain a real sense of the studio it was recorded in.  A lot of recordings could have been recorded anywhere, but this one conveys a sense of location.  Many of the ECM recordings have that feel and the Rainbow Studios in Oslo immediately come to mind.  The album was recorded at the Power Station studios in New York, which incidentally is where Jarrett’s ‘Changless’ was recorded at about the same time.

Twenty five years on, the album still sounds fresh and engaging.

The Album is available from Mark Isaacs Website: http://markisaacs.com/9-latest-news/13-encounters-with-dave-holland-roy-haynes-available-now

Australian and Oceania based bands, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, Post Bop

Mark Isaacs @ CJC

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Pianist and composer Mark Isaacs has a rapidly growing international reputation and we were lucky to get him here.  Once again it was down to Roger Manins, who has wide connections in the Jazz world and we are eternally grateful for it.  Mark Isaacs has toured the world extensively and not only fronted a number of prestigious Jazz festivals, but also recorded with many world-renowned Jazz musicians.  Artists like Kenny Wheeler, Roy Haines, Adam Nussbaum and Dave Holland have appeared on his albums but as if that were not enough, he has two parallel musical careers.   Mark is also a classical pianist/composer of some stature and the conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy said this of his extraordinarily beautiful ‘Children’s Songs’.  “This wonderful cycle is highly inventive and inspiring, accessible to children and adults alike.  Very enjoyable and touching“.

The first thing to strike you about Mark is his intense passion for music, but his focus and drive have not in any way deterred him from exhibiting a cheerful, often extroverted demeanour.  He engaged easily with the CJC audience and his level of report with the band and especially Roger, made the gig all the more enjoyable.  Even though he had not played with drummer Frank Gibson Jr or Bass player Cameron McArthur before it felt like an established band.  He and Saxophonist Roger Manins go back a long way and perhaps because of this long-standing connection, what was billed as a standards gig, soon became so much more.  IMG_8456 - Version 2 (1)

The set kicked off with ‘Gone With the Wind’ (Allie Wrubel – 1937).  By coincidence this once popular but seldom heard tune was performed here by Mike Nock only months earlier.   Both artists appeared to briefly reference the brilliant but somewhat obscure Brubeck version, but each approached the tune in very different ways.  Mark Isaacs is another musician who has the history Jazz piano under his finger tips and as he worked his way into the tune I could hear brief echoes of the past greats.  I love this tune and especially when interpreted this well.

As the set list unfolded I realised that most of the standards were from the 1930’s.   It is not hard to fathom why, as the Great American Songbook tunes written in this period were second to none.  The gig,  subtitled as ‘Pennies From Heaven’, was later explained as being an inside joke.  Roger and Mark had embarked upon just such a project a decade ago and in their view the title scared off the potential audience.  More fool those who failed to turn up because this number in their hands was fresh, funny and satisfying.  ‘Pennies from Heaven’ (Johnny Burke/Arthur Johnston) is also from the 1930’s.

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The tune that I have posted is the perennial favourite ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ (Frank Churchill – 1937).  Although non Jazz audiences would only associate this tune with Disney, it has a long and distinguished Jazz history.  Among the 100’s of well-loved versions are those by Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and Grant Green.  Playing a classic standard like this to a savvy Jazz audience can have its pitfalls as comparisons are inevitable.  The audience however lapped it up and from the stating of the melody through to the open-ended interpretation near the end, it was fabulous.  With Roger egging the band on and Mark responding in kind it could hardly be otherwise.

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There was a very nice solo by Cameron McArthur who astonishingly just keeps improving between gigs.  Frank Gibson Jr met Mark years ago but in spite of them trying to organise a gig it never happened until now.  In the event it was a happy confluence of inventiveness, exuberance and great musicianship.  Roger Manins was on form as usual, delivering fiery energised solos in a post Coltrane manner.

Mark Isaacs has the technique and the hunger to continually reach beyond.   Whether gently comping under a melodic bass solo or unwinding the melody to explore what lies beneath he engages us.  His probing left hand often pulls slightly back on what his right hand is playing and the tension created gives added impetus.  While his Classical compositions are informed by Jazz, the opposite is also true.  He will surely continue to do well in both worlds.

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As I left the club I picked up a copy of his Resurgence band’s ‘Duende’ album and put it on during the drive home.  It is an album of his own compositions.  What was immediately apparent was how well crafted the compositions were.  It was the sort of album that ECM might have released and the quality of the recording added to that impression.  As I listened on I heard some beautiful guitar work, not over stated but clean, inventive and crystalline.  Then I heard a human voice, wordlessly singing arranged lines as part the ensemble.  Easing over to the curb I picked up the album cover and flipped it over.

The personnel list would stop anyone in their tracks.  Mark Isaacs (piano), James Muller (guitars), Matt Keegan (reeds and percussion), Brett Hirst (bass), Tim Firth (drums), Briana Cowlishaw (vocal).  Matching this dream line up with those compositions was a masterstroke.   Muller and Isaacs communicate so very well.  It all made sense, the Kenny Wheeler connection, the skilled arranging and the promise of what may follow.   Mark Isaacs has the ears to absorb and the smarts to compose what works best for him.  This album certainly does.

Who: Mark Isaacs (piano, compositions, leader), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Frank Gibson Jr (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart, 1885 Basement, Auckland, New Zealand on 2nd October 2013.

Album and contact details: ‘Duende’ (Gracemusic GROO4)