At some point in human evolution, the majority of humans decided to stay put. In consequence, the hunter-gatherers and the pastoral nomads became outliers. As civilizations grew, agriculture grew and large enclosures and granaries grew along with them. Beyond the walls and the jumble of enclosures; largely unnoticed, often unseen, foraging continued unabated. The homeless on the streets forage, philosophers forage, writers forage, wild and domestic animals forage and above all improvisers forage.
Martin Kay’s gig was a tribute to foraging; highlighting the activities of foraging animals, creatures large and small and to the improbable life lessons, they impart. It was about cultivating absurdity and profundity in equal parts, it was about following the ancient herds using postmodern skills. It nibbled at reality until you saw it afresh, building on overlooked narratives, finding the things we often miss; a Zen Koan wrapped in sound.I first saw Kay in 2013 with ‘Song FWAA’. The post from then and the accompanying sound clip is still available on this site (use site search, type in Song FWAA). On Wednesday, his charts were for a larger ensemble. This time offering fresh insights; taking us further down the Rabbit hole. The pieces were of variable lengths and sometimes in parts. At some point during the second set, he played a piece titled ‘Ligeti’s Goat (I first heard that back in 2013). While the piece has melodic hooks and a basic structure, it is more, a surrealistic journey. A place where imagining, spoken narrative and musical narrative meet. Ligeti’s goat is vividly embedded in my memory; it is not a piece easily forgotten, a goat wandering through pastures, locating carrots (perhaps forbidden carrots), digesting the vegetables in that mysterious way of all ruminants.
There was a piece titled puffer fish, another called ‘Thrice mice’ (that chart in a minuscule script like mice prints) and a vampire piece titled ‘Once bitten once shy’. There was also an appealing piece about a tracker dog, selling his skills to those who might have need of them. None of this was an invitation to anthropomorphize – Kay’s animals spoke for themselves. He spends much of his time in New Zealand these days as his wife works here. For this project, he selected a group of local improvisers to form the ensemble; younger players with an open approach to improvisation. In this respect, the location favoured him, bringing the gifted Callum Passels into the group. Also featuring Crystal Choi, Michael Howell, Eamon Edmuson-Wells and Tristan Deck; each one of these having a stake in explorative improvised music. The only non-original piece was ‘Turkish Bath’ by the innovative trumpeter Don Ellis. For material similar to Kays, you need not look any further than Ellis or perhaps Henry Threadgill. It is good to have Kay in our midst, as he’s an interesting, often challenging and worthwhile composer. I have put up two clips – Turkish Bath and narrative about the Tracker Dog.
Let’s go – much as that dog goes / intently haphazard….not direction, ‘but each step an arrival’ (poet Denise Levertov 1923- 1997)
Forage: Martin Kay (tenor saxophone, compositions), Callum Passels (alto saxophone), Crystal Choi (keys), Eamon Edmunson-Wells (bass), Tristan Deck (drums). CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Rd, Auckland, 20 September 2017
It felt good to back at the CJC after nine weeks away and all the more so when I discovered that the Steve Barry Quartet was playing. Since attending my last CJC gig I had travelled 40,173 kilometres (as the crow flies), journeyed through ten very different countries, confused innumerable people along the way with my slender grasp of their deliciously exotic languages (including American English); I visited six Jazz clubs and numerous jazz bars, experienced hundreds of poetry encounters – travelled on more ships, trains and planes than I can remember and wore out a brand new pair of shoes. In spite of feeling befuddled and seeing at least two of everything, I decided that a dose of improvised music might impose a semblance of order on my disordered senses. Still jet lagged I drove expectantly into the city, surprised to find that dozens of large buildings had been sneakily removed in my absence. The Albion stood precariously on a precipice – all nearby buildings gone without a trace; giving the block the appearance of a toothless grin; apart from one well-worn molar.
No one is ever going to be disappointed by a Steve Barry gig, an adventurous and constantly evolving pianist and composer. I was also delighted that he was featuring Martin Kay, a gifted and adventurous saxophonist. As the lights went down and the music washed over me, order returned. My neurones settled into familiar grooves as I felt myself exploring the sound and it’s endless possibilities. I closed my eyes for a moment, but on opening them saw the strangest apparition. The jet lag was far worse than I thought because a young woman appeared to be gyrating dangerously across my vision – her long hair flying in all directions. She lurched one way and then another, at times bent double, her movements so erratic that I decided that it was probably a mirage brought on by crossing too many time zones.
She rushed here and there, dancing (well sort of), a look of strained intensity on her face, eventually deciding to up the ante by falling heavily onto the tables and sending my equipment and drinks flying. A guiding hand came out of the darkness and led her away to a corner where she sat forlorn and motionless – at least for a few minutes. As a finale and before anyone could restrain her, she sprinted toward the band, launching herself free of gravity. This weightless state lasted mere seconds, then an untidy crash followed as she fell heavily into the centre of the bandstand – a slow motion train wreck in an odd time signature.
What impressed me enormously was the composure of the band. Grinning from ear to ear they played on, never missing a beat – true improvisers, reacting to and utilising the moment. Barry has accumulated many accolades and awards over recent years but he is never one to rest on his laurels; spending the last year composing – finding new ways to express his evolving musical ideas. The music was superb, ranging from open and free to adventurous standards, beguiling, labyrinthine. The gig guide had accurately described Barry’s compositions as modernism, melodicism and minimalism combined. As themes were probed and developed, new soundscapes opened up. The addition of the gifted Martin Kay an asset, enabling a fuller realisation of Barry’s vision.
Kay was on alto for this gig, bringing every ounce of his considerable talent to bear as we experienced his full-throated sound. His solos took us deep inside the music and at times he utilised extended technique. His use of multi-phonics was impressive but never gratuitous, adding colour and fresh dimensions to the innovative compositions. A piano does not have the freedom of a saxophone in this regard, but Barry played off the others with increasing intensity during his solos. The contrast was extremely pleasing. On bass was Cameron McArthur and on drums Andy Keegan, both performing like the veterans they are. McArthur is a regular and popular at the CJC (deservedly so). Keegan we see less, but on the basis of Wednesday nights performance I would hope to see him more often. This was complex though accessible music and well rendered. Barry’s year of hibernation has been a fruitful one.
A seldom played standard Juju (Wayne Shorter) was marvelous. The angularity and endlessly unexpected turns paying Shorter deep respect. This gig showcased musicality at the highest level (and with the added benefit of some impromptu free fall performance art thrown in). I was glad to be back home for this.
I heard quite a bit of music while travelling and I also heard the varying cadences of the spoken word along the way (especially in poetry). In Vienna I heard a the cross-pollination of Americana and European folk rhythms (Chico Freeman), in the Bimhuis Amsterdam I heard Euro Free Jazz (Frank von Bimmel and Han Bennink) – in Gdansk I heard improvised music that was Polka infused. Improvised music is a universal phenomena but it has regional dialects. I like our Australasian dialect very much.
Steve Barry Quartet: Steve Barry (piano, compositions), Martin Kay (alto saxophone, compositions), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Andy Keegan (drums). The gig took place on 26th October 2016 at the Albion Hotel basement – CJC (Creative Jazz Club).
The Auckland Jazz gigs during Jazz April have been high quality (see last four posts). Above all they have encompassed the breadth of improvised music. Song FWAA from Australia was therefore a perfect choice to round off a smorgasbord of tasty events. They (Song FWAA) are quite possibly the illegitimate love children of ‘Sun Ra‘ and while no DNA evidence has validated that theory the lineage is manifest in their music.
As a scene matures listening ears get tweaked through exposure to new sounds. The demand for a wider range of musical experiences follows that. This doesn’t happen by accident. It begins with musicians stepping into uncharted territory and ends with the listener reacting. The mere mention of ‘adventurous music’ can cause cold sweats from venue management and all the more so if an ‘out’ gig is proposed. Happily for us Roger Manins of the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) takes some risks and as the club audiences continue to grow that policy is vindicated. It is the job of artists to confront or challenge and listeners should welcome this. Settling for bland entertainment leads to musical confection, not jazz, not art. Some people are perfectly happy leading the lush life in some small piano bar, but that is not where the music develops. Improvised music is as much about audience engagement as about performing and without the feedback loop a musical project would become an unheard conversation between band members. Those who heard Song FWAA, heard edge, originality and musical humour so cunning that no weasel could better it.
The band has garnered rave revues around Australia and their 2011 album ‘Ligeti’s Goat’ is highly recommended. If you listen to the album you feel that you are listening to a much bigger unit. At first this seems attributable to the rhythm instrument, which is of the guitar family but quite different in timbre. This is a specially made 8 string ‘Frame’ played by David Reaston. The voicings, pickups and pedals used (i.e Moog pedal) give it distinct and very different sound. Not loud but other-worldly; a strangely subtle sound that can impart real richness.
Martin Kay plays alto saxophone and although this is a standard instrument he also manages to coax a range of different sounds from it. Martins multi-phonics and extended techniques give depth to the performance, just as drummer Jamie Cameron’s colourist approach and extended drum technique added depth. At the end of the evening I felt that the musicianship more than the instrumentation created this special groove.
The gig (and the album) was replete with compositional parables about animals and their epic adventures. Martin is adept at telling these tales; which have a ‘Hunter S Thompson’ quality about them. ‘Ligeti’s Goat‘ the title track for instance explores the eating-cycle of a goat. “Tonight” said Martin, “we will only be playing the second section – ‘digesting carrots’ “. Another number was a moving tribute to a peripatetic Polar Bear. To quote from the liner notes regarding the tune ‘Olefeig’ (AKA that which should not be shot): ‘Documents the transformation of scenery through the eyes of a Polar Bear, drifting on a shard of ice from Greenland to Iceland, where his destiny finds a bullet’.
A number titled ‘Mugwump‘ was most enjoyable. The gist of the introduction by Martin was that Aliens had come to earth to seek Moroccan desert fuel and somehow this referenced William Burroughs and the Dogon people of neighbouring Mali. He had me hooked as soon as he mentioned Morocco and Burroughs.
Song FWAA’s music is at times ‘free’ and at other times working long ostinato grooves. This moving ‘outside’ one minute and then playing ‘inside’ or following a melodic hook to its conclusion works. The group has something to say and they say it with genuine originality. I hope that they come back soon and share more animal sagas with us.
Their promo material describes them as the ‘wrong band for the right people’. I love that descriptor, but the one sour note struck was their failure to paint their faces ‘Art Ensemble of Chicago Style’ for the gig. This is how their webpage profile shows them and we are mature enough in NZ to handle that. As Roger Manins says, ‘truth in advertising is at the heart of jazz’. I have no idea what that means but we do love face paint.
What & Who: ‘Song FWAA‘ – Martin Kay (alto sax), David Reaston (frame guitar), Jamie Cameron (drums). Buy the album from www.songfwaa.com