‘Alchemy’ Album Review

Alchemy2 (1)Have you ever heard one of New Zealand’s iconic pop songs and wondered how it would sound reimagined as Jazz? The journey from popular song to Jazz piece is a well-trodden path. Many tunes that we now refer to as ‘Jazz standards’ began their life as tunes written for broadway musicals or for the popular music market. For a tune to successfully cross that divide it needs to be well constructed and to lend itself to reharmonisation. With ‘Alchemy’, this elusive symmetry is realised.

In the late twentieth century, classic Beatles tunes or those of Michael Jackson, Prince and Stevie Wonder were effortlessly adapted as Jazz vehicles. If you hear Uri Caine, Brad Mehldau, Herbie Hancock or the Kiwi Jazz pianist Jonathan Crayford playing ‘Blackbird’ you might conclude that Blackbird was written with a Jazz pianist in mind. These crossovers are a tribute to the composer and to the transformational skills of arranging Jazz Musicians. Alchemy2 (3)

A few years ago the award-winning New Zealand writer/director/producer Mark Casey embarked on an ambitious project to recast a number of New Zealand’s best-loved pop songs as Jazz tunes. It was a significant and perhaps a risky undertaking but gradually the project gathered momentum. In mid-December, ‘Alchemy’ was released and immediately, it rose up the NZ music charts. This is a significant achievement but it is not down to Casey alone. His masterstroke was engaging leading New Zealand Jazz Pianist Kevin Field as the Musical Director. Field is not only a gifted Jazz Pianist and acknowledged Warner recording artist, but his skills as an arranger and vocal accompanist are beyond question. Creative New Zealand came to the party and backed the proposal.

As the project moved forward a variety of Kiwi Jazz musicians were approached, some working in New York, most local, and one by one they came aboard. When the album was about to be recorded, I was asked by Field and Casey if I would be interested in witnessing the recording process. I was. I seldom pass up a chance to become a fly-on-the-wall during recording sessions and this project fascinated me. Being an embedded observer in such situations is always intriguing. It affords a writer the opportunity to gain insights that would otherwise be invisible. As the musicians turned up to rehearsals and to recording day there was a palpable sense of enthusiasm. No one questioned Fields guidance as he tweaked the charts and made suggestions. And any sense of disconnect between the pop and Jazz world evaporated swiftly. This was not pop Jazzed up. It was Jazz, and although there were reharmonisations and Jazz rhythms, the integrity of original tunes remained intact.

In the recording studio were Auckland’s premier Jazz and Soul singers and a selection of experienced Jazz instrumentalists. On vocals were Caitlin Smith, Lou’ana Whitney, Chelsea Prastiti, Allana Goldsmith, Bex Peterson and Marjan Nelson. On piano and keyboards was Keven Field, Roger Manins was on tenor saxophone, Richard Hammond on electric and acoustic bass, Michael Howell on acoustic and electric guitar, Ron Samsom and Stephen Thomas on drums and percussion. In addition, there were two special guests, Michael Booth (trumpet) and Nathan Haines (soprano saxophone). This was serious firepower and thanks to the arrangements, all well deployed. The NY based ex-pat bass player Matt Penman had arranged tracks 7 & 12 and Marjan co-arranged tracks 4 & 8 with Field. Alchemy2

There are six vocalists on the album and they sing two tunes each. Careful thought had obviously been given to who would sing each song because the strengths of the individual vocalists were well matched to the tunes. For example, the warm but wistful lyricism of Chelsea Prastiti paired with ‘I’m glad I’m not a Kennedy’ (Shona Laing), the heartfelt reflectiveness of Caitlin Smith with ‘I hope I never’ (Tim Finn) or the engaging bell-like clarity of Marjan singing ‘Brown girl’ (Aradhna Patel). Together the musicians delivered something unique. This is a project which works and the more you listen to it the more you are beguiled. It is Kiwiana and it could be the perfect soundtrack for your summer.

‘Alchemy’ the album is available in New Zealand stores or from online sources. 

Louisa Williamson Quintet

Louisa Williamson (1)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.Louisa Williamson

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

Richard Hammond + Friends

R HammondSubject 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

The Turtlenecks @ CJC Backbeat

Garden (1)In the late 1950s and early ’60s, anyone with an ounce of cool wore a coarse-knit black polo neck jersey. While they sat there feeling cool their necks would start to itch and angry red rashes would creep up to their chins. Chins made all the itchier by the regulation chinstrap beards or ‘hip’ goatees.  Then in act of blatant cultural appropriation, Playboy invited the middle class to co-opt some of that hipness. Along the way, ‘Hef’ sensibly revised the polo neck jersey requirement, which morphed into a white cotton turtleneck and slim white jeans. Anyone who has seen David Hemmings in Antonioni’s arthouse movie ‘Blowup’ (one of the best films ever made), will quickly realise that sleazy old ‘Hef’ got it right. The Beatniks, on the other hand, got it woefully wrong. The better option had us wearing scratch free cotton turtlenecks and ‘Hef’s’ crowd wearing the itchy coarse knit jerseys (they never kept them on for long anyhow). So, when I saw that a band called the Turtlenecks was appearing in a Jazz joint and in cotton, I yelled Hallelujah. At last a serious wrong turn is being corrected.

The band was formed by saxophonist Jimmy Garden, a musician who obtained his wings in Auckland, then flew away to join the Australian scene for a number of years. Upon his return he formed the ‘Turtlenecks’, aided and abetted by musicians from his cohort.  I recall his departure well, as a lot of gifted musicians left around then. Thomas Botting, Peter J Koopman, and Steve Barry to name a few. This cohort, be they ‘leavers’ or ‘remainers’, were a hothouse of improvisational experimentation and it is always good to see them back among us. A few of those friends joined him on the bandstand Wednesday night.  

The compositions, all by leader Garden, are catchy and with more than a nod to groove.  There is also a pinch of humour evident and this informed last weeks performance. Although they are competent musicians, they never tried to overwhelm with cleverness.  What was more evident was their joy of playing together and that bonhomie overshadowed all else. They did what (cotton clad) Turtlenecks should. They played without a hint of itchiness.

The band has a number of drum, bass and guitar personnel it can call upon, while the two horns remain constant.  The personnel at the CJC gig were leader Jimmy Garden – tenor saxophone (tasteful), J Y Lee – alto saxophone (always a pleasure to hear), Michael Howell – (a popular local guitarist), Cam McArthur (one of our finest NZ bass players), and Adam Tobeck (a versatile drummer, well-known about NZ). The gig was at Backbeat K’Road, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 20 March 2019

Leda’s Dream 2018 – Chelsea Prastiti

Prastiti (1)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.  Prastiti (2)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.  PrastitiPrastiti’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

Oli Holland’s Jazz Attack

Oli (1)Oli Holland is one of the leading bass voices in New Zealand. He formed Jazz Attack just over a year ago and since its inception, he has been writing new charts and expanding the lineup. Holland writes interesting charts; often complex but always compelling and his last gig showcased a number of these. This was an expanded lineup – adding three of Auckland’s heavyweights for a quartet segment in the first set. His bass is a powerhouse presence and his ringing melodic lines always distinctive. During solos, his vocalised unison lines fleshed out the tone, drew us deeper in – perhaps even influencing his improvisational choices. It is well established that vocalising while improvising on an instrument, fires up the human brain in new and interesting ways.   Oli

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is predominantly a young band but nicely balanced by two seasoned regulars (Holland as leader and Finn Scholes on trumpet). Adding a segment featuring  Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (keys) and Ron Samson (drums) provided an interesting contrast. When Misha Kourkov joined Manins in the first set we saw this exemplified. After the head, the two tenors each took solos, Kourkov’s was thoughtful with a nice sense of space while Manins dived in and let his long years of experience and no prisoners approach guide him. The two solos worked very well together and it was nice to see a two-tenor spot which avoided the formulaic line-for-line battle formation.

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While the Holland, Manins, Field, Samsom, segments stung with intensity, the core band used the charts to flesh out the compositions. Nick Dow on the piano was interesting in this regard. His solos short but perfectly formed and his often understated comping lightening the density of the ensemble. Michael Howell on guitar also took a thoughtful approach – both chordal instruments providing depth due to their approach. The two main horns were Kourkov and Scholes (foundation members). Kourkov is rapidly maturing into a fine player and I really enjoyed his contribution. Scholes is always interesting and capable of a great variety of expressions. On this night, his solo’s achieved edge and warmth in balance.

As always with Holland, there were a number of funny stories preceding the tunes, improbable seques which hinted at his motivation in naming them but inviting us to fill in the gaps for ourselves. Holland is widely recorded and has recently recorded in Europe with leading musicians. Any gig featuring Holland is well worth attending and this was no exception. Oli (2)

I have posted a clip titled ‘Van Dumb’.  The gig took place at the Thirsty Dog for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) on the 28th February 2018.

 

Manjit Singh / Michael Gianan

Manjit (1)With emerging artists gigs you modify your expectations, but in this case, it was completely unnecessary. Both sets showcased great musicianship and originality.  The first set was Manjit Singh and Takadimi; an Indian music/Jazz fusion project. Manjit Singh is not an emerging artist in the strictest sense, he is a highly experienced tabla player, composer and teacher in the two main traditional schools of Indian music (Northern and Carnatic). He has recently been doing a Jazz studies course at the UoA and this project arises from that. The traditional music he teaches is not that dissimilar to Jazz, as it has improvisation aspects and complex interwoven rhythms at its core. Singh also gave us an insight into another tradition, the ecstatic Sufi-influenced music of northwest India, Pakistan and central Asia – Again, a tradition that has fed the rich streams of Indian music and more recently, Jazz.   Manjit

His first number was a Dhafer Youssef composition ‘Odd Elegy’, to my ears the ultimate expression of Jazz, middle eastern fusion. When Singh opened with a Konnakol to establish the metre, the tune took on a more Indian feel and it worked well. This verbal method of laying down rhythmic patterns at the start of a piece has often been adopted by Jazz musicians; notably John McLoughlin and Tigran Hamasyan. The inclusion of a drum kit added to the complexity of the rhythmic structure, but the two percussionists navigated these potentially perilous waters with aplomb (Singh setting the patterns and Ron Samsom working colour and counter rhythms around that).

The rest of Takadimi were younger musicians, but they handled the charts and the improvisational opportunities well.  With bass player Denholm Orr anchoring them, the two chordal instruments and saxophone (Markus Fritsch) handled the melodic lines; mostly playing in unison, and in keeping with the music style – relying more on melodic interaction than on harmonic complexity.  Michael Howell used his pedals judiciously, winding the reverb and sustain right back, his guitar sounding closer to an Oud. The pianist Nick Dow was a pleasant surprise to me. He had an intuitive feel for this complex music. After ‘Odd Elegy’  we heard an original composition of Singh’s, then a wonderful Trilok Gurtu composition.  This project is worthy of continuance – I hope that the talented Manjit Singh builds on what he has begun here.  

The second set was guitarist Michael Gianan’s first CJC gigs as a leader. Again you’d hardly have known it. He looked comfortable on the bandstand and this confidence manifested in his playing. He had the finest of Auckland musicians backing him and while this can enhance a performance it can also expose a less experienced player. He fitted into the unit perfectly and the band obviously enjoyed playing his material. His set was nicely paced and offered contrast, but he favoured the stronger numbers – those with bite.

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Gianan is clearly a modernist in his approach, but the history is there also. His compositions providing plenty of ideas for the more experienced musicians to work with. You could see Olivier Hollands enthusiasm as he expanded on the themes and responded to phrases. I am a long time fan of Jazz guitar and I anticipate good things ahead for Gianan. His bandmates: Kevin Field (piano & Rhodes), Olivier Holland (upright bass) and Ron Samsom (drums).
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Takadimi: Manjit Singh (Tabla, Konnakol), Michael Howell (guitar), Nick Dow (piano),  Marcus Fritsch (saxophone), Denholm Orr (bass), Ron Samsom (drums)
Michael Gianan Quartet: Micael Gianan (guitar), Kevin Field (piano, Rhodes), Olivier Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums).
CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Road, Auckland, New Zealand, 6 December 2017