Bebop, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Straight ahead, Swing

Marc Osterer (NY/Austria)

Marc Osterer 254Improvised music is a never-ending contest between the familiar and the unexpected. Everything is valid on the journey, but sometimes we forget that tradition can be a springboard and not a straightjacket. We had a good example of that on Wednesday.  Because he lives far from here, few if any locals had previously encountered Marc Osterer, but few who heard him will forget his exuberant CJC gig. Born in New York, Osterer has led an interesting musical life. Broadway Shows, New York clubs, principal trumpet (Mexico City Philharmonic) and the Salzburg Festival Austria. While he attended prestigious musical conservatories in New York, there is something else in his sound – something that can’t be learnt purely from academic institutions. Osterer’s Jazz has a firm foothold in the tradition. Louis Armstrong and the great swing-to-bop trumpeters like Sweets Edison. It made perfect sense therefore that the standards he played were from the Songbook and that his own compositions reached deep inside that era.Marc Osterer 256 (1)

There was something of the old time back streets and jazz alleys in his sound. The way he phrased and that tasty lip-shake vibrato coming straight after a ‘hot’ clean-toned blast. Sure he is a formidable technician, but there was more than that in his sound. Trumpeters not raised on his streets, not bottle fed on Armstrong, Eldridge, Stewart, Allen or Edison hesitate before diving into that particular sound. Swing-to-bop as played in the 50’s still contained the mellow soulful echoes of its New Orleans beginnings. This period is often overlooked today – perhaps it’s even seen as hokey by some?  That’s a shame because the era is a gift that keeps on giving (watch a clip of Roy Eldridge or Henry Red Allen sometime – ‘whomp whomp’). What Osterer showed us were modern interpretations which were credible and which shone fresh light on an oft neglected golden age of trumpet.Marc Osterer 255We also witnessed good chemistry between the visiter and his pick up band. It was not the band advertised but what we got was terrific. Matt Steele was flown up from Wellington and locals (fellow UoA Jazz School alumni) Eamon Edmundson-Wells and Tristan Deck completed the rhythm section. Pianist Steele has been gone from Auckland for over a year and is seldom heard here these days. We do hear Edmundson-Wells (bass) and Deck (drums), but to the best of my knowledge, none of them have performed in this context. Absent were the complex time signatures and post bop harmonies. The tunes stayed closer to the melody and the rhythmic requirements were often two-beat or even something closer to second line. As they played through the sets the joy of discovery showed on their faces and we felt it too. Marc Osterer 255These musicians were still students three years ago but their skills are now well honed. They met the challenge and more.  Locals who had not seen Steele play for a while, were buzzing; especially after the blistering Cole Porter standard , ‘It’s alright by me’. Steele’s fleet fingered solo was terrific, and matched by Deck’s bop drumming (complete with appropriately placed bombs and fluid accents). Edmundson-Wells dropped right in behind, pumping out his lines, and it was obvious they were enjoying themselves.  Osterer’s compositions tell us how Marc Osterer 254 (1)comfortable he is with this style of music. His ‘What’s that smell’ (Jazz should be ‘stinky’ he explained) – a New Orleans referencing tune, then ‘Tune for today’ and ‘Bite her back’ based on a Bix Beiderbecke tune. Among the standards was Chet Baker’s version of the little known ‘This is always’, a steamrolling syncopated version of ‘Limehouse Blues’ (Braham) [Note: I have only seen one Kiwi attempt that, Neil Watson on fender] and a version of Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘New Orleans’.

My favourite tune of the night was the bands version of the Mencher/Moll 1930’s standard,’I want a little girl (of my own)’. This slow burner is another that has dropped from fashion, perhaps due to the slightly creepy title (and the lyrics are definitely pre feminist).  What a tune this is though. This was less Armstrong’s version than the Cootie Williams/Eddie Cleanhead Vinson take or even Brother Jack McDuff’s. A low down dark-alley speak-easy version with growls, stutters and smears; giving us the full dose of ‘stinky’ jazz and we loved every second of it. A commentator once stated; “When they find out which part of the human brain holds the love gene, this tune, ‘I want a little girl’ will be present in the DNA”.

Putin recently opined that tolerance and the Western world’s fetish for embracing diversity are signs of weakness. Hermann Goering said something similar, “when I hear the word culture I reach for my gun”. This myopic world view is the domain of strutting fools. The improvised music circuit is our connection to innovation, tolerance and expanded consciousness. On Wednesday nights we forget Trump and Le Pen. For that short window in time we live in a world of exciting ideas and discover the hidden corners of human consciousness.  Keep them coming CJC, you enrich our lives.   

I have put up two sound clips: ‘I want a little girl (of my own)’ and ‘It’s all right by me’ – enjoy.

Mark Osterer (trumpet, arrangements, compositions), Matt Steele (piano), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (bass), Tristan Deck (drums). 22nd March 2017, CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Thirsty Dog, K’Road, Auckland.

 

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CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium, Straight ahead

Lex French Quartet @ CJC 2016

French 2016 089In spite of living at the other end of the Island, Lex French is a regular fixture at the CJC. It is hardly surprising since his popularity with Jazz audiences is ever-growing. There are not many trumpeters of French’s stature in New Zealand and it is our good fortune that he remains. He obtained his Masters from McGill University in Montreal, a university with a strong focus on brass. A university which had an ongoing association with the UK-based Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler while he was among us. I mention Wheeler, because as I walked down the stairs to the club to set up my gear, I heard the unmistakable opening phrase from ‘Smatter’ coming out of the darkness. Just the opening phrase and then silence.French 2016 088It was so Wheeler-like, that I assumed someone was setting up a Wheeler album on the club sound system. As my eyes accustomed to the low light I saw French standing alone – repeating the phrase. French is not a one-trick pony; he is as modern as tomorrow, but at other times, old school respectful. He can punch out high notes or swing hard bop like a Blue Note artist back in the day.  This is not a musician to pass up on.

His current working band travelled from Wellington with him, all of them known to Auckland audiences; Matt Steele on piano, Johnny Lawrence on bass and Cory Champion on drums. The set list was mainly French compositions, but in the middle of each set, a standard or two. The standards were well-chosen and contrasted the originals nicely. The best known was Benny Golson’s ‘Stablemates’, a perennial favourite, Kenny Wheeler’s complex tune ‘Smatter’ and ‘Nostalgia’ by Mingus.French 2016 090I particularly liked French’s compositions ‘Kasid’ from the first set. There were many reasons to like this; the musicians innovative explorations of the theme, the evocative middle-eastern mode underpinning it, and the fact that it referenced the wonderful Iraqi poet Abdulkareen Kasid. An achingly beautiful melody tinged through with bittersweet sadness, establishing itself delicately over a quietly incessant bass motif. When Steele came in, his opening chords were Oud like – giving the impression of soft strings jangling sweetly in the night air. I listen to a lot of middle-eastern improvised music and this performance stands beside the best of those. In the background, the drums tap tapped (like stones tumbling in a stream, and every so often swooshes).French 2016 093The poet Abdulkareem Kasid is new to me (and I have a huge collection of poetry). To discover a poet like this is exciting and I thank Lex French for this. What could be better than to experience a night of interesting music, and at the end, find a poet?  I finish this with some words from that poet – listen to the piece as you read the lines – I did.

In my hands / From past and future / I’ll grab two stones / And run with them / Even in the lightest / breeze I’ll fly / Summon a wind, to come / And wipe out every trace / And I’ll sit like an orphan / By the roadside mourning / My two stones”

                                         Abdulkareem Kasid

Lex French Quartet: Lex French (trumpet, compositions), Matt Steele (Piano), Johnny Lawrence (bass), Cory Champion (drums). CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 23rd March 2016.

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium, Straight ahead

Richard Thai 5 @ CJC

Richard Thai#1Richard Thai was on the first JAC album but by the time I saw the ensemble live he had left New Zealand for America to complete his postgraduate studies. Recently he returned to his hometown of Wellington where he now teaches and leads the Richard Thai 5. While the ensemble is a basic line up of saxophone, piano, guitar, bass and drums it is never the less forward-looking. This is post millennial music.

The set list on Wednesday featured Thai’s compositions. The well constructed tunes had an attractive ebb and flow, but behind the arranged heads and often lingering melody, lay obscured complexity. This is the type of material that can sorely test a band but under his quiet guidance they delivered. There are few hard edges to Thais sound, but he is unafraid to reach deep inside a solo; probing until it yields more. He is above all a confident player and in spite of his very even delivery, he conveys a lot of information. Richard ThaiThe best illustration of this was heard in his second tune, ‘Capricorn’. A marvellous composition. Like much of Thai’s material it has powerful hooks to draw you in. What sounds simple is in truth anything but, as it shifts between major and minor keys with disarming ease. Many tunes do this, but with Capricorn the device is extraordinarily well conceived. The shifts in focus are pleasing, but what sets the tune apart is a sweet over-arching dissonance; diminished chords acting as a bridge to carry you across the major-minor divide. The arranged head is especially tantalising; setting the listener up expectantly for the explorations that promise to follow.Richard Thai (5)Capricorn’s momentum is that of a multi-hued butterfly in a tropical storm; pushing against the cross winds, never losing its way, pulse, or sense of purpose. Thai’s tenor picks at the tune, peeling the layers back, exposing the heart. This contrasts with pianist Matt Steele’s oblique approach. Steele clearly took the difficult route and along the way it yielded gold. You were with him note by note as he undid the knots of the puzzle confronting him. Steele is always an interesting pianist and always one to watch. It is his determination, his preparedness to take risks and his ability to learn on the bandstand that marks him out from many of his peers. He grows as an artist each time I see him. Richard Thai (14)The last to solo on Capricorn was guitarist Callum Allardice. After the long complex solos preceding his, he wisely chose to linger nearer to the melody. His tight elliptical figures rounding out the earlier solos and bringing us gradually back to the outro. His time to shine as soloist came on the last number where his guitar soared as if free of gravity (much to the delight of the audience). Allardice has many fans in Auckland.Richard Thai (6)The remaining two band members Shuan Anderson and Scott Maynard are also established musicians from the Wellington area. Anderson (like Allardice) was also a member of the Tui nominated JAC and he has played at the CJC before. A responsive drummer who interacted well and picked up on the subtle nuances of the material. The bass player Scott Maynard has been a member of various leading Wellington units (e.g. Myele Manzanza, Lex French). He has played at the CJC before and he never disappoints.  His role in giving a heart beat to this often complex material was vital. I look forward to hearing more of this ensemble and above all I would like to some hear more Thai compositions. With a few more years of performance under their belt the unit could achieve even more.

Richard Thai 5 – Richard Thai (tenor saxophone), Callum Allardice (guitar), Matt Steele (piano), Scott Maynard (bass), Shaun Anderson (drums).

CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland on 9th December 2015

 

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, New Zealand Jazz Gigs, Piano Jazz, Post Millenium

Matt Steele ‘Master Brewers’

Matt Steele 2015 087It is always good when proved right and in the case of Matt Steele I certainly was.  This was a superb gig and it confirmed the promise that I saw in Steele as a first year student. The ‘Master Brewers’ musicians are exactly what Steele needed at this stage in his development and he is clearly what they needed. There is a cohesion about this group and it extends beyond the music. This is a band of friends and because they spend a significant amount of time together, they are able to dive deeper into the material on hand. Most of the band is writing and being familiar with each others styles, they contribute compositions that serve the project well. Younger musicians often favour shorter term projects but I hope this unit continues for a while. When I last saw Steele perform it was at his honours recital and he was very much in charge. Now as leader, the reins are subtly loosened and the music benefits from this. With experience, leaders can confidently guide without over playing the role. That only works when the interactions and cues become second nature. In their best moments the ‘Master Brewers’ acted as a single entity; everyone maximising their options while retaining an awareness of the others.Matt Steele 2015 089I immediately noticed that Steele’s voicings were darker. His interesting harmonic approach an outcome of an ever-growing musical maturity. There are certain aspects to Steele’s playing that stand out and during the gig these crystallised in my mind. These attributes are why I follow his career so attentively. He is self-effacing by nature, but that masks a ruthless striving for betterment. Ever reaching further, listening deeply, critically and taking risks. For all that he able to relax into the moment and as he grows musically this is more evident. The most difficult journey for any musician is finding a distinctive style and owning it. Steele is well on the way.Matt Steele 2015 088Thanks to Roger Manins programming, Auckland audiences get to see good Wellington bands every few months. In this case the audience were unfamiliar with the musicians (apart from Steele), but what a treat this gig was. The band won us over quickly and by the time the second set began they were cooking. In spite of the modernistic approach and complex time signatures these guys have a definite pulse. They swing like crazy.Matt Steele 2015 090Ashton Sellars had suffered a mishap with his guitar and he had to borrow one at short notice for the gig. He told me that it felt very different to his own older instrument, but no one would have guessed it by the way he was playing. Under his fingers the instrument sang. He favours longer fluid lines (with a hint of Bauer/Tristano), but his is very much a modern sound. His improvisations are thoughtful and they invite you along. While their music is often complex there is no ballast of needless weighty intellectualism. Piano and guitar keeping nicely apart unless comping in support. Both understanding when to lay out. Once again cohesion and a sense of common purpose drives themMatt Steele 2015 091Johnny Lawrence played upright bass, maintaining the core rhythm duties. While he held the pulse intact, he could also solo very effectively. Like his band mates he fitted into the mix in exactly the right way. Cory Campion was also a strong presence, often giving colour or providing accents. Above all his compositions were strong. There is an increasing trend for drummers to compose and when they write like this it provides an interesting perspective.  Drummers write differently and the ones I hear lately, write very well. Steele and Sellars contributed the most tunes and each wrote in their own distinctive style. Together those charts and this band gave us pure enjoyment.

Master Brewers: Matt Steele (Leader, Piano), Ashston Sellars (guitar), Johnny Lawrence (bass), Cory Champion (drums) CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 8th July 2015

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Hard Bop, Straight ahead

Scott Taitoko Sextet @ CJC

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It was great to catch a sextet gig lead by a trombonist.   There are a number of trombone players about Auckland, but we usually see them buried in the centre of a Jazz orchestra or hiding in the shadows of an ensemble.  When they do appear in a brass section they enrich the palette and texture.  There is something special about that fat burnished sound.  The slurs, the rich colour tones, the pitch, and above all that hint of wistfulness that can hang in the air momentarily after the sound emerges from the bell: even mournfulness on occasions.

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Emerging in the late baroque period, the trombone has a lineage stretching back to the sackbut.  In Jazz lineups it is the saxophone family which dominates the brass instruments, closely followed by the trumpet.  The slide trombone and especially the uncommon valve trombone are rarer commodities.  This is the reverse of what occurs in the classical setting where saxophones are still regarded as interlopers.  While the instrument may not dominate modern Jazz lineups, listeners, musicians and composers alike hold a deep affection for it.  On Wednesday we heard Scott Taitoko perform a number of Hardbop era standards.  This was the high watermark for Jazz trombone (the Jazz orchestra not withstanding).  Hardbop leaders like Horace Silver and Art Blakey always included a bone and players like Kai Winding,  J J Johnson, Curtis Fuller and Frank Rosolino were never out of work.   IMG_3008 - Version 2 

As I went down the stairs before the gig, I could hear the sextet rehearsing a few bars of an uptempo J J Johnson number.  It sounded marvellous, as Johnson numbers do.  Later, well into the first set Taitoko performed the achingly beautiful ballad ‘Lament’ (also by Johnson).  This was a trio piece,  just guitar, bass and bone and it worked beautifully.   As Sam Taylor comped gently, Richie Pickard wove perfect bass lines; In Taitoko’s hands the melody filled the room and hung there in its melancholic splendour.  We all love the gorgeous arrangements and rich voicings of the familiar Gil Evans/Miles version or our own Wayne Senior’s chart (who arranged it for Nathan Haines on his ‘Vermillion Skies’ album), but it was nice to hear it stripped down to the essentials.  The other Hardbop composers who featured prominently were Horace Silver (who passed away just over a month ago) and Joe Henderson.   These are among the greatest composers of Hardbop standards.

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There was at least one original during the evening and that was a stunner.   Taitoko had penned it as a tribute to his grandmother and to the Marae he identifies with in the King Country.  The tune ‘Koromiko’ references his mountain, his Marae and his forebears.  We felt that connection strongly during the piece and the musicians clearly did too as they told the story with feeling.  I have put up a clip of Horace Silver’s ‘Tokyo Blues’.  A perennial favourite done well.  There were nice solos on this tune by Taitoko, Steele, France and particularly by Sam Taylor.  Steele could not have been better, taking a slightly oblique approach at the beginning, working with the complex meters and nailing it.

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There is a strong Christchurch connection to this lineup with Taitoko, Pickard, Taylor and Keegan all having strong connections with that city.  We see a lot of Pickard and Keegan these days and are the richer for it.  We hear the talented expat Scot, Pete France less often and more’s the pity.

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Who: Scott Taitoko Sextet – Scott Taitoko (leader, Trombone), Pete France (tenor saxophone), Matt Steele (piano), Sam Taylor (guitar), Richie Pickard (bass), Andrew Keegan (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand.  1st October 2014

 

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Piano Jazz, Straight ahead

Matt Steele Trio/Alex Ward Trio 2014

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When you listen to Matt Steele, you quickly realise that he is in the middle of an interesting musical journey.   In a trio setting, there is not an ounce of hesitation about him, no sense that he is micro-analysing his performance; he plays for the joy of it.  This in-the-moment absorption has moved his playing to another level and best of all he carries the audience with him.  While Steele is still in his honours year at the Auckland University Jazz School, it is obvious that gigging about town has added something extra to his performance.  A wider awareness, an openness and a hunger for what is just out of reach.  You can’t develop those attributes merely from formal lessons.  The spade work for this ongoing development as an artist has been in the hands of competent teachers and foremost among those is Kevin Field.  Although the club was dimly lit, I could make out Field sitting quietly in the audience; after the set he moved forward to congratulate Steele.  There was an unmistakable look of satisfaction on his face.

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As Steele sat at the piano and counted in the first number you were immediately aware of movement.  Pianist, bass and drums, swaying and bending into the sound; moving as if governed by an unseen force.  When musicians are able to sync to the rhythms, move to the ebb and flow of the music, it can enhance a performance.  When a pianist moves well it is like watching a prize boxer; the keys stung by blows or else stroked teasingly.  Not all pianists move like this as approaches to the instrument are many and varied.  In this situation Steele was definitely more like Kenny Kirkland than Bill Evans.

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Most of the set were original compositions by Steele, some new, some reworked.   All sounded fresh, as an equal vigour infused the older numbers (like ‘Holy Moly’) and the newer ones (‘So Retitled’).   Steele has brought several trios to the CJC and this time his band featured Richie Pickard on bass and Andrew Keegan on drums.   His instincts were spot-on as Pickard and Keegan dug in and delivered for him.  They worked well together and Steele’s insistence on approaching each gig as a democratic exercise worked.  His second number (and probably the only non original) was a piece by Sun Ra.  This was bound to please me, as I love Sun Ra in all his out-crazy glory.  It was brave and it worked well as a trio piece.

 

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The second set was the Alex Ward Trio.   Ward (an Honours graduate from the NZSM) has been on a scene for a few years now and his Aero Jazz Quartet, formed over a year ago, often performs about town.  He recently completed a stint on a cruise ship with Trudy Lile and reports from that gig were overwhelmingly positive.  He is the Jazz Programme Coordinator for the NZ School of Music (Albany Campus) and involved in music Education in the private sector.

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Wards set showcased interesting material.  Some of the tunes he drew from lessor known Jazz sources, while his own compositions also featured.   It was good to hear him playing Tigran Hamasyan’s ‘Leaving Paris’, an engaging waltz.  It is from Hamasyans’s ‘New Era’ album and it is surprising that it is not heard more often.  Ward executed this gently swinging piece perfectly.  Another standout number was a tune by the Welsh pianist Gwilym Simcock.

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On bass was the always pleasing Eamon Edmundson Wells.  He is a capable player able to shine in diverse settings.  On drums was Ivan Lukitina-Johnston.   I have only seen Johnston on two previous occasions and find his approach on traps thoroughly workman like.  The one blight on the evening was the sound from a loud upstairs band which bled through into the quieter moments.  It made counting-in and the quieter intros a challenge for the musicians.

Who: Matt Steele (piano), Richie Pickard (bass), Andrew Keegan (drums)

Who: Alex Ward (piano), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (drums), Ivan Lukitina-Johnson (drums)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand    www.creativejazzclub.co.nz

 

Avant-garde, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium, vocal

Chelsea Prastiti 2014

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Chelsea Prastiti could be said to represent an intergenerational change in the direction Jazz Vocals are headed.  I have watched her grow in confidence since her time at the Auckland University Jazz School and she is always ready to try brave new experiments.   Because her default is the use of wordless vocal lines, she has better been able to explore the relationship between voice and the other instruments.   This integrated approach is possible for two main reasons.  Her keen awareness of what is happening around her and above all her compositional skills.

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Chelsea Prastiti is writing good material.  At times it feels brave and edgy, but it is always interesting.  Perhaps another factor is the musical familiarity with her band mates.   Her bands generally feature Matt Steele (piano), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Liz Stokes (trumpet), Eamon Edmunson-Wells (bass) and Tristam deck (drums).   Because they were students together and because she has played with them often, I have gained the impression that she may even write material with them in mind.   One of her best recent performances was as guest artist on Callum Passells last CJC gig.   These two always work well together, but hearing them moving in lockstep as they traversed standards and amazingly innovative free numbers was a joy.

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There were a few newer compositions and some re-arranged takes on earlier compositions.  Everything in the sets was composed by Prastiti.   I like ‘Bells’ which begins with a simple peal of bells, but quickly evolves into an altogether more complex piece.  Steele was standout on this, never over-playing but making every note count.   His comping was at times minimalist but he conveyed a certain strength.  The rhythmic feel that he laid down was further enhanced by Deck and Edmunson-Wells.   This allowed Passells and Prastiti to explore the tune in a methodical manner.  Steles solo is worth a particular mention on ‘Bells’, as it underscores his growing maturity as a pianist.

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Prastiti is involved in a number of local projects including an ethnically influenced a capella group.  It is however her ability to edge toward the avant-garde that always interests me the most.

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What: Chelsea Prastiti (vocals, compositions), Matt Steele (piano), Cameron Passells (alto saxophone), Eamon Edmuson-Wells (bass), Tristan Deck (drums) – Guests; Liz Stokes (trumpet),   Cristal Choi (vocals)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand.  9th July 2014. http://www.creativejazzclub.co.nz