Dr Tom Botting Rediscovers Aotearoa

Bass player Tom Botting recently returned to Aotearoa and his first Auckland gig was well received. Even as a gangly student he impressed, and the regular attendees at the CJC hold fond memories of those Britomart Jam Sessions where he featured so prominently. Soon after that, he moved overseas, gaining a doctorate at the Sydney Conservatory. Like many of our musical exports, he returning annually, and many of the tunes that we heard last Wednesday were first showcased during those back-home tours. 

His compositions are always memorable and often evocative. Now, he has returned to weather out the pandemic, bringing with him some new tunes, and updated arrangements of older ones. They are no longer isolated in a disparate setlist but are played sequentially and in geographical alignment. While the tunes are not presented as a suite, they nevertheless evoke a strong sense of place. And whether intended it or not, they present a cinematic journey across our landscapes. Here, Botting has achieved what locals often cannot. His yearning from afar for our landscapes and archetypes has led him to create something sublime. 

The tune titles in these sets speak of mountains or the places immediately in their shadow; Mitre Peak, Mt Aspiring, The Remarkables, Hamner Springs, etc. I have posted a YouTube clip titled Hidden Waterfall and it is one of his more recent compositions. It begins with a pedal tone on piano, around which the bass introduces striking motifs, and then, a new line is introduced by the alto. 

The piece is simply captivating and clarity is achieved by ensuring that no instrument gets in the way of another. It’s not easy to strike that fine balance and it’s extremely clever writing. Each segment stands on its merits, and yet, sits comfortably within the arc of the overall composition. It is a good example of less being more or to put it another way, as something complex rendered into ear-grabbing approachability. 

Botting is a superb bass player and he poured everything into his tunes. He was always one to absorb himself in his playing and that has not changed. As he plays you see nothing but hair and fingers, but what you hear is the essence of the man. Beside him was Callum Passells on alto and he pulled out a great performance. An approach at times reminiscent of Shorter, and always with that gorgeous tone.  Partially hidden on the left of the stage was guitarist Michael Howell, and again a good performance from him. His newfound confidence is reaping dividends. To complete the quintet were Kevin Field and Jono Sawyer. Both are consummate professionals and they maintained the standard of playing that we have come to expect of them. Pick up bands of this quality make a visitor happy to return.     

There is a rich tradition of pastoral music in Aotearoa, most notably Douglas Lilburn. There is also the extraordinarily beautiful Ondas Album (ECM) by our premier Jazz Export Mike Nock. It is good to see a body of work of this quality adding to that tradition. Botting had already performed a concert in Wellington prior to reaching Auckland and a recording from that gig may soon be in the offing. The Auckland concert was recorded by RNZ and those unable to make the gigs should watch out for the broadcast. This music will appeal to most Jazz lovers, whatever their preferences. 

Tom Botting (upright bass, compositions), Kevin Field (piano), Michael Howell (guitar), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Jono Sawyer (drums).  The gig took place at Anthology, K’Road for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 5 August 2020

Joe Kaptein / Ben Gailer

The gigs introducing young emerging artists are a time-honoured tradition at the CJC Jazz Club. It is one of the reasons why Carolyn and Roger Manins formed the cooperative well over a decade ago. It is a vital part of club programming, as it tests the metal of emerging musicians by exposing them to a seasoned Jazz audience. The gigs also give us a glimpse of the future; they reveal who has yet to shine, and who will soon be nipping at the heels of seasoned musicians.

Both Joe Kaptein and Ben Gailer are students at the University of Auckland Jazz school.  Kaptein is in his third year of studies and Gailer has recently completed his honours studies. Stylistically, the musicians presented very different offerings and the contrasting approaches gave us a unique insight into the breadth of teaching available at the Jazz school. It was a showcase for the band leaders and a showcase for their tutors, with many of the latter hiding in the shadows and beaming throughout. 

First up, was the Joe Kaptein sextet. The band was a mixture of former and current Jazz students (plus two tutors), with Kaptein leading on keyboards, Michael Gianan on guitar, Roger Manins on tenor saxophone, Will Goodinson on electric bass, Elijah Whyte drums and Ron Samsom on percussion. The compositions were all Kapteins and it was immediately obvious why he chose keyboards over the piano. I have heard Kaptein perform as a sideman on several occasions, and his preferred palette is that drawn from the older analogue keyboard instruments. On this occasion, he had a Render Rhodes as his primary keyboard and a variety of augmentations (one machine in an intriguing case, the knobs and dials reminiscent of the moon landing console). 

The first time I heard Kaptein was like hearing 70s Jazz reimagined. I have always thought that the era deserved further appraisal, as the journey back then was curtailed by the Jazz police. It is possible, that Kaptein found this style without reference, but nevertheless, he has encapsulated a modern version of that older trippy explorative vibe. His compositions are mature and packed with surprise.  In typical post-bop fashion, there were references to the waypoints of the jazz journey; but above all, these numbers spoke of joy.  

The second set featured a sixteen-piece ensemble led by Ben Gailer and what he presented wowed everyone in the room. Arranging and composing for an orchestra is a complex task, but to bring such an orchestra to a Jazz club on your first gig there is beyond brave. All of the charts had been arranged by Gailer and many of the compositions were his own. His own material stood up very favourably amongst the standards ’There will Never be Another You’ and a fresh sounding take on Hancocks ‘Maiden Voyage’. That speaks for itself.

It’s hard to know where to start in evaluating a set like this as it covered so much fertile ground. There was his energised conducting, somewhat reminiscent of Darcy James Argue with its expressive flourishes as he urged the sections on. There were the finely textured arrangements which balanced dissonance with melodicism in a precise and pleasing measure, and then, there was his pianism which shone through all of that. That is a lot to bundle together but he did so with real class. I can’t wait to hear where his journey takes him next.

Ben Gailer

Because of the sight-lines and the seating, I could not set my video up for that set and I cursed that I had not brought audio-recording equipment with me. What I did, was record it on my phone as an aid in evaluating the performance. Posting iPhone capture is not ideal, but with luck, a better recording of this large ensemble may become available at a later date. I certainly hope so.

Joe Kaptein Sextet: Kaptein (keyboards, effects), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Michael Gianan (guitar), Will Goodinson (electric bass), Elijah Whyte (drums), Ron Samsom (percussion)

Ben Gailer Orchestra: Ben Gailer (compositions, arrangements, piano, Fender Rhodes), Lukas Fritsch (reeds), Cameron Kelso (reeds), Felix Hayes-Tourelle (reeds), Daniel McKenzie (reeds), Charlie Harmer (reeds), Jake Krishnamurti (Trumpet), Jack Thirtle (trumpet), Nick Curry (trumpet), Caleb Probine (trumpet), Jono Tan (trombone), Esther Simpson (trombone), Zachary Lim (trombone), Michael Gianan (guitar), Hank Trenton (bass), Rhohil Kishore (drums).

The orchestra was a mixture of present and recently graduated UoA Jazz school pupils.

Passells/Howell/Deck

This trio has been around for a while, but the musicians are all active with a variety of other projects. They frequently appear as sidemen and they first teamed up during their Auckland University Jazz School years. Passells has been teaching, composing, appearing as an altoist (and a drummer), and adding his skills to some adventurous and diverse projects. Howell is a member of various bands, such as the Jazz Tui nominated Alchemy and the Jazz Tui Award winning GRG67 who launched their second album recently. It was reviewed on this site. Deck is a gifted and versatile drummer and his work as a member of the much lauded Indie Pop group The Beths is as noteworthy as his Jazz offerings.  He is also a member of GRG67.

 As a composer and a performer,  Passells takes a path less followed. He’s a melodicist and often appears in units where the arc is not reliant on chordal harmonies.  This moves the attention to melody, and most of all, it reveals his lovely tone. The alto is an unusual instrument in this regard, as its tonal qualities can alter markedly, depending on who plays it. Perhaps, because it is aligned so closely to the human voice? It has also been suggested that the airway of an alto player can exert a stronger influence than with other horns. While a tenor can also be individualised, it is more inclined to speak on its own terms. Passells alto voice is distinctive,

There was no bass with this unit and without such anchoring, the melody lines seemed to float unencumbered. When the alto was playing the guitar would either play unison lines, lay out or provide timely interjections. The reverse occurred when Howell played. The drums however, were a solid presence and provided continuity and momentum. As a result, the tunes felt conversational and at times, thoughtful. And the ears followed the musical dialogue easily, in spite of the elided grammar. Passells introduced the tunes as he usually does and his trade-mark humour was evident. He has an easy going banter, often self-deprecating, and laden with random references.

The band played in near darkness which provided atmosphere, but made filming a difficult proposition. By the second set, the lighting had improved slightly and I have posted a tune from that set. The tune I posted is interesting, as there are frequent unison lines played, with guitar and alto speaking as one. It is reminiscent of Marsh with Konitz, but the drums pull the music in a different direction. Out of that confluence come interesting tensions. This is ripe territory for a group of this configuration and the seasoned listeners picked up on the various references. 

Callum Passells (alto sax), Michael Howell (guitar), Tristan Deck (drums)

The gig took place at Anthology K’Road, for the CJC, Auckland 22 July, 2020

GRG67 ~ Happy Place

The first gig after lockdown restrictions brought a record audience to the Creative Jazz Club.  Now, a week later, with a second gig achieving similar results, it is obvious that the thirst for quality live-improvised music in Auckland has not been dented. And what better way to whet the appetite than with the 2019 Tui Award-winning band, Roger Manins  GRG67. This is a truly magnificent quartet and it occupies a special place in the lexicon of Kiwi improvised music. Sitting at the juncture between free and inside, and doing so with an ease that pleases everyone.

Roger Manins is a drawcard and the highest level of playing is always expected of him. His long years of playing on the bandstand, and often in challenging situations, has honed his craft to a fine point. To burnish his already impeccable credentials he has now added a Doctorate of the Musical Arts to his resumé. Most of the compositions and arrangements on the album are Manins, but as with the previous GRG67 album, there is also a tune by Mostyn Cole featured. 

The GRG67 album The Thing won a Jazz Tui, but the band has not rested on its laurels. Happy Place is not just more of the same. On this album, the writing and playing have taken on an additional edge. It explores form in many oblique ways and then roams into freer air. They sounded cohesive before, but now they sound even more so. There is new confidence to their playing and it is nowhere more evident than with guitarist Michael Howell. 

Howell has long shown such promise and it is pleasing to see it realised. He took obvious delight in sparring with Manins and his solos were masterful. Tristan Deck on drums likewise. His role here was to stretch the ensemble, to urge them on when the moment called for it. He achieved that while never losing sight of his interactive role. Deck has many irons in the fire, but I wish we saw him playing here more often. On electric bass was Mostyn Cole, a regular bass player at CJC gigs. He is reliable and experienced and one of an elite group of first-call bass players when an overseas artist is in town. In this band, he was liberated from that role and his obvious delight in the music shone through. 

I have posted a clip titled ‘Frizz’ which is deliciously melodic. Listen to more tracks on Rattle Bandcamp, and if you do, purchase a copy. The tight unison lines on MayWayDay will blow you away and the free-spirited Shoint 67 will groove you to your soul. 

There were no weak links in this chain. They wove in and around each other and fired off crazy lines over urging pulses, and from the safety of our chairs, those present swayed along. This was also our happy place. So this is where Jazz sits in 2020. Forward-looking, but bringing the old into bright fresh spaces, and doing so without contrivance.  

Roger Manins (tenor saxophone)

Michael Howell (guitar)

Mostyn Cole (electric bass)

Tristan Deck (drums)

https://rattle-records.bandcamp.com/album/happy-place

‘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.

Oli (3)

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

Martin Kay & ‘Forage’

Kay (3)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).Kay (2) 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

 

Marjan

MarjanWhen Marjan stepped up to the microphone, she owned the room from that moment on. Her previous association with the Jazz club had been peripheral, but this gig changed everything. I have sometimes engaged with her about Persian music or Sufi poetry and I have heard her performing in the Kevin Field ‘A List’ band. She is always impressive when she sings, but this was impressive in a different way. It was her first Jazz club gig as a leader and suddenly, here she was delighting a capacity audience, every bit the seasoned professional; exuding an easy-going confidence. It was tempting to think that she had magically transformed herself into this fully formed artist, but her back story offers deeper insights. Marjan is of Persian descent and while this breathes exoticism into her music, it is only a fragment of her story. In truth, she has been a performer for much of her life; an established presence in the world of film, an in-demand voiceover artist, a teacher of music, dance, and drama. She draws on many strengths but on Wednesday they coalesced; a marvellous voice and a formidable stage presence the outcome.Marjan (3)If her choice of a first number was to make a bold statement, then she succeeded admirably. Stepping out from behind the black curtains, accompanied by a shimmering Rhodes, she embarked on her engrossing journey. The first few bars of her ‘Desert Remains’ were straight out of the Sufi Jazz tradition; it was a call for universal tolerance: arising from her belief that music provides a pathway to transcend the banal. Almost imperceptibly, the tune became a love song, settling into new and funky rhythms. This was a nice piece of writing and the rhythmic interplay gave her much to work with. The influences in many of her compositions are generational; Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Brian Wilson and of course her indigenous roots. All of this is filtered through a Jazz lens. Although her approach is modern, she doesn’t shy away from the traditional fare of Jazz singers.Marjan (6)Looking to popular music for new material is not a recent phenomenon for Jazz vocalists. Ella tackled ‘A Tisket a Tasket’, Louis appropriated a multitude of pop songs. The great American songbook is a selection of one-time popular songs. It is what Jazz musicians do; explore, steal and transform. The more diverse the influences the richer the music. When she tackled the lovely Jazz standard ‘Detour Ahead’ (Ellis/Frigo) she owned it completely. That hint of smokey voice, that delicate phrasing; being adventurous while showing deep respect to the composition. It was hard not to think of Norah Jones; an artist who is traditional and modern in equal parts. I would also give her top marks for her set list; the numbers included ‘The look of love’ (Burt Bacharach), ‘God only knows’ (Brian Wilson), ‘I’ll be free’ (Donny Hathaway) and of course her own compositions and one of Kevin Field’s.

To sound your best you need fine musicians backing you and she had that with Keven Field on Rhodes and piano, Michael Howell on guitar, Mostyn Cole on bass and Stephen Thomas on drums. Everyone on the Auckland scene is familiar with Field, Cole and Thomas – they never fail to please. I would like to single out Howell here as he gave us a great performance. It was tightly executed, appropriately modulated and exactly what was required. Nice fills, tastefully brief solos and well executed pedalling. It can take years for a chordal accompanist to learn these skills. In a younger artist, it shows real maturity. It seems certain that Marjan’s singing career can only gain pace from here. Her grace, good sense, great vocal chops and confidence will see to that.

Marjan (vocals, compositions, arrangements), Kevin Field (piano, co-arranger), Michael Howell (guitar), Mostyn Cole (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums) – CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Rd Auckland, 6th September 2017.

 

Stephen Thomas – No Hawkers

Steve Thomas (1)In spite of his relative youth, Stephen Thomas is counted as one of New Zealand's better Jazz drummers. He approaches his craft with care and intelligence and it shows in his playing. While his technical skills are superb, he can also communicate on a human level and this is important as it speaks of character. Thomas is a regular on the scene, but like many sidemen and most drummers, he prefers to remain in the shadows. On Wednesday he changed that focus and convincingly staked his claim as band leader.Steve Thomas (4)The ingredients that contribute to a successful gig are often intangible, but this gig ticked a number of those boxes. While tailored to suit a Jazz audience, it did so without being remote or elitist. Another reason the gig worked was because Thomas used humour to good effect; not just his on stage banter but in the music as well. In a live setting this is important – interacting with the listeners on some level, bringing them inside the circle.Steve Thomas (3)Thomas has an abiding interest in the Ellington/Mingus/Roach, 'Money Jungle' recording and Wednesday provided him with a further opportunity to explore that project. While unusual as a source of standards material, it is a great album to focus on – the perfect vehicle for deconstruction. At the time it was recorded, it stood out for a number of reasons. In fact it shouldn't have worked at all, as the trio members reputedly disliked each other. Each had marked stylistic differences and Ellington was of an earlier generation. Ellington told the others that what they would play on the record should be a collective decision; then he turned up with a set list of his own tunes. The one tune which was not Ellington's was by Juan Tizol – a man who Mingus had once been in a knife fight with and because of whom, he was sacked by Ellington. What should have been a disaster for many reasons was a success. A brave post-bop recording by artists firmly rooted in other eras.Steve Thomas

Chosen from the Money Jungle material were 'Wig Wise and 'African Flower' (Ellington). Both of these tunes were given interesting treatment. The latter rendered into a dreamy fusion like vibe and the former, given a wonderful vaudevillian twist; the head melody line played on an analogue Prophet 08 synth. Reverence and open exploration in equal parts.Thomas's own tunes were interesting as well. 'No Hawkers' was a cleverly constructed solo piece; his engaging beats triggering pre-recorded samples, which he played over. 'Rat Race' was another great tune, this time with the full ensemble.Steve Thomas (5)

The other two standards were Giant Steps (Coltrane) and 'Fascinatin' Rhythm' (Gershwin). His quintet featured Crystal Choi, Michael Howell, Tom Dennison and J Y Lee and what a great band they were. Choi was especially wonderful; she's comfortable in a variety of settings and she just keeps growing as a musician – she really digs in and the sky's the limit for her. Howell was also decisive in his playing and it really suited him. Lee and Dennison are seasoned professionals and we are never disappointed by either. I was still buzzing from Dennison's previous weeks gig on electric bass – that boy can do no wrong.

No Hawkers: Stephen Thomas (arrangements, drums, samples), Crystal Choi (keyboards), Michael Howell (guitar), J Y Lee (alto saxophone), Tom Dennison (upright bass) – CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K' Road, Auckland, July 12, 2017

Tom Dennison Quintet

Tom D (6)Dennison is a first class musician and someone we don’t hear nearly enough of on the Jazz circuit. He rarely gets to the CJC but when he does it is always a treat. These days he is mostly found doing session work or backing visiting artists and it is hardly surprising that he is a bass player of choice. Whether on upright bass or electric bass he is equally proficient; always an engaging presence, always demonstrating a deep musicality. He has one more string to his bow which can’t be overlooked and that is composition. His tunes are often whimsical, but whatever the mood, a deftly crafted structure sits beneath every phrase. Never over done, bass driven and just right. There is also a thread of melancholia and wistfulness in his ballad writing: these are difficult emotions to evoke and anyone with knowledge of poetry will know, that only the most skilful poets do the moods justice. Dennison can.Tom D (4)Passels playing was another high point of the evening for me. He just gets better every time we hear him. He is also exactly the right person to interpret mood. I liked the way he approached the tunes, working his way inside them methodically. Sometimes angular, at other times teasing at the melody. During the ballads, he often began with sparse phrasing, establishing mood without overstatement; then, slowly telling his story as if looking at the theme from differing viewpoints. Although he plays decisively, he carefully modulates; generally without flourish or vibrato – pushing at a note until subtle multiphonic textures form – his paper-thin Konitz-like tone saying more than any honk. His versatility is also an asset. Any player who can comfortably move outside and inside while still maintaining a theme is a person worth listening to.Tom D (3)McAneny, who initially faced a cable problem, overcame it quickly and delivered a fine performance. Having a Rhodes and a guitar together can be problematical, but the charts and McAneny’s nimbleness enabled him to avoid crowding the space. Howell gave a nice performance and his lines are terrific; He knows what he’s doing but I’d like to hear him bite into his solos a bit more. Drummer Adam Tobeck was on solid ground with this group, he obviously enjoyed the company and reacted well to whatever was thrown his way. After not playing here for a few years, he is now a regular on the bandstand. I like his drum work very much.

Dennisons post-Zoo material is terrific. Fresh, adventurous and deeply appealing. I hope this gig presages a ‘Zoo Two’ album (or ‘Zoo Two by Two’?).  From Zoo we heard ‘The Cat’ – of the newer material there were many great pieces – I loved ‘Unkindness’, also the punkish take on the Beatles ‘Day Tripper’ and ‘J Y Lee’ (a contrafact of ‘Donna Lee’ which in turn is a contrafact of ‘Indiana’).

Tom Dennison Quintet: Tom Dennison (5 string electric bass, compositions), Callum Passels (alto saxophone), Connor McAneny (Rhodes), Michael Howell (guitar), Adam Tobeck (drums). CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, July 5th 2017.

Leda’s Dream

Chelsea‘Leda’s Dream’ has been around for some time, but this is the ensemble’s first appearance at the CJC. When vocalist Chelsea Prastiti first conceived of the project, she saw it as a vehicle for unfettered collective improvisation. Her writing cleverly expands on that concept, encompassing real places, the past, abstract ideas, and opening the listener to endless possibility. There is a structure to her vision, but to grasp it you must let go of what you think you know. The pieces are mirage-like; if you look too closely they will disappear.  As you listen, fragments of the familiar appear, then dissolve. These are seamless journeys; cleverly fusing reality with dreamscapes. Leda’s Dream is to be experienced and enjoyed, not pigeonholed.Chelsea (1)

This is avant-garde music, perhaps the bravest we have heard at the CJC this year. The traditional Jazz references were there, but the freedom to expand or contract themes characterised the tunes. During ‘Faster down ice’ I heard echoes of Mingus; driving, pulsating rhythms over which freedom was explored. Tristan Deck and Eamon Edmundson-Wells at the heart of this pulse (on drums and bass respectively). With a human voice in the mix, the ideas became multi-dimensional. The human voice is the oldest of instruments and when it moves beyond words, the forms which anchor it – a rawer emotion is exposed. Sometimes it is pretty or melodic, at other times a primal scream. Listening to this music is to experience sound on its own terms.Chelsea (5)Prastiti’s ‘Time Lapse Photography’ was filmic. Revealing the essence of unfolding plants – magical realism – biology expressed as music. In a similar vein was her piece,’Rain Flood’. As she sang, you experienced the droplets of water – falling slowly at first, then faster until they became a deluge. Communicating in this way is a gift few possess, the images seeming to emerge from nature or from experience, not from the musical form. I immediately thought of my favourite Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray and his mystical Monsoon scene from ‘Pather Panchali’. The effect created by Ray there, also swept us to the heart of a poignant interaction between man & nature (musically assisted in that case by Ravi Shankar and Mingus alumni Charlie Mariano).Chelsea (3)The Leda’s Dream ensemble are alumni from the UoA Jazz School. A lot of talent emerged during the years they attended and during this particular gig it coalesced. It was a pleasant surprise to see Crystal Choi playing this innovative abstract music. Choi is a musician who is fast evolving and growing in interesting ways. At Jazz school she stayed closer to traditional forms, or those referencing the folk infused ECM albums. Later I saw her giving a concert on solo piano, Jarrett like in its scope and quite wonderful. On Wednesday she embraced freedom. She was innovative, interactive and confident.

Callum Passells was the lead-horn on alto saxophone. Beside him in the front line for part of the gig was Liz Stokes on trumpet.  Passells is especially comfortable in this space. Playing sparingly and never playing a note for the sake of it, each note meaning something. Michael Howel came on stage for the second set as the full Leda’s Dream experience emerged. First as a quintet then sextet and finally as a septet.

Leda’s Dream: Chelsea Prsatiti (voice, compositions), Chrystal Choi (piano, voice), Callum Passells (alto saxophone, voice), Liz Stokes (trumpet), Michael Howell (guitar), Eamon Edmudson-Wells (upright bass), Tristan Deck (drums), 16th May 2017, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Rd Auckland.

GRG67 cries ‘fowl’

GRG67 127.jpgAgainst a background of complacency in regard to the ever declining biodiversity on the planet, one band is determined to raise our awareness. Those who have encountered the quartet on prior occasions will know the back story, connect the dots. GRG67 arose out of an impulse of crustacean empathy, an emotion usually confined to marine biologists and not Jazz musicians. However, once you grasp the fact that the band’s founder is Roger Manins, the rest falls into place. A sustainable fisher and co-manager of a small menagerie, Manins could best be described as the David Attenborough of the tenor saxophone. His world is strewn with animals and that’s the way he prefers it.GRG67 131.jpg

GRG67 the band, was inspired by a sea crab named Greg (as there are evidently  no vowels in the crab language, the name was rendered as GRG – but still pronounced Greg by etymological purists). At the bands inception the improvisational possibilities of the crustacean kingdom were examined, then the net was widened. Wednesday nights gig set sail for chook territory, relentlessly braving the ‘fowl’ winds of the wild west coast. With one or two exceptions, chooks (Gallus gallus domesticus) were eulogised in composition. They were plucked at by Michael Howell and Mostyn Cole, given a thunderous improvisational makeover by Tristan Deck and vocalised in all their glory by Manins.GRG67 128.jpgEach tune title was accompanied by a personal story or zoological insight; each bird was treated with deep respect. With titles like ‘chook empathy’, ‘chook 40’, ‘ginger chook’, ‘dark chook sin’ we were afforded some rare insights into the avian world. ‘Chook 40’ was not about the 40th chook as you might suppose. It opened our eyes to the fact that chooks have one more chromosome than humans. During that particular tune you could really sense that extra chromosome. ‘Dark chook sin’ was an invitation to anthropomorphism. What would a chook sin look like? Manins felt that Mallard ducks were more likely to sin than a chook (anyone living near ducks who has a deck will have a view on this).GRG67 129.jpg The quartet played with wild enthusiasm in both sets and the good humour of the evening was infectious. Given the subject matter it was only fitting that the gig took place at the Thirsty Dog (dogs are also a recurring theme with Manins). The venue was congenial and the acoustics good. What more could you want on the last night of Spring. This band is a rallying cry, reminding us that in this troubled world we shouldn’t take the good things for granted. At a time when we are buffeted by the ill winds of international politics, the arts matter more than ever. New Zealand Jazz rewards us in so many ways and the diversity of improvised music in our city is a treasure. You get good musicianship and fun combined – and if you’re lucky a musical insight into the natural world around us.GRG67 133.jpg I have posted the bands signature tune GRG67 as it simply crackled (cackled) with life (and it broke a previous speed record). These guys are fine musicians and GRG67 was never better than on this night. These guys sizzle.

GRG67: Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Michael Howell (guitar), Mostyn Cole (electric bass), Tristan Deck (drums). Playing at the Thirsty Dog, CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Auckland November 30th 2016.

Oli Holland’s Jazz Attack

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2016 has seen more internationals passing through our Auckland Jazz club than ever before. Most of these offshore artists were extremely polished, playing at a level you’d expect from musicians tested in the hot-house of big city venues. Against that back drop it is exciting to encounter a first time up local band that can turn on a gig like this. ‘Oli Holland’s Jazz Attack’ is a fun band and an engaging one. The band’s leader (Dr) Olivier Holland, is an extraordinary bass player, renowned throughout New Zealand; the other experienced band member was trumpeter Finn Scholes, the remainder of the sextet were students.Oli 2016 121From early in the first set, I felt the passion behind the performances, the sheer exuberance that is generated when a group know that they are performing effectively. Seasoned touring musicians sometimes sacrifice this – perhaps the effort of being on the road, the effects of jet lag, robbing them of warmth. It reinforces my view as a listener, that an artist needs more than chops to fully engage with an audience. When a band is comfortable on stage, properly rehearsed and above all up for a riotous night, magic can happen.

I enjoyed this gig and what I will take away is that joyous enthusiasm they generated. This is largely down to Holland, a seasoned bass player who generally downplays his role as spokesman. “Bass players are not supposed to speak,” he said, “but I will anyhow”. A leader who can move from grin to deadpan in an instant; a natural talker, who milks the hell out of his spoken lines. He is extremely funny, the master of throw away lines and in between numbers storytelling. This clearly rubs off on the band members and establishes the mood.Oli 2016 126Trumpeter Finn Scholes can always surprise and over recent years he has impressed me increasingly. His vibrantly brassy ‘south of the border’ sound in the Carnivorous Plant Society is well-known, but anyone who thought that was all there was to him, hasn’t been paying due attention. He is raw and raspy on avant-garde gigs, mellow and moody on vibes and in this lineup reminiscent of the young Freddie Hubbard. His solo’s had bite and narrative, his ensemble playing was tight; above all, he generated palpable excitement, the sort that brings people back to live music again and again.Oli 2016 125

There were four students in the line up and the thing about students at this level, they have the ability to step up. Often though, they lack the confidence to do so. Many will over think a performance or only tentatively express what is in their heads – a careful observer can see that hesitation. The four students here stepped free of that hesitation, especially the tenor player Misha Kourkov. Being in the moment and bringing your skills to bear instinctively is what good Jazz performance is about.Oli 2016 129

Kourkov delivered some blistering solos and the best came surprisingly early in the gig. It has been a while since I saw him play (as a first or second year student I recall); he has come on in leaps and bounds since then. He looked and sounded good on the tenor, as if the instrument was a natural extension of his body. There was no mistaking the influence of Roger Manins either – that preparedness to reach for impossible notes, that full-bodied rich golden sound, storytelling.Oli 2016 123

On piano was Nick Dow from Christchurch, completing a Masters in Auckland. A nice touch and avoiding the trap of playing too many notes. On guitar was Michael Howell, no stranger to Auckland audiences, another AUJS student: playing an attractive solid body instrument; rounding out the sextet sound nicely and not over peddling. The remaining band member was Daniel Waterson (drums). Like the others he was obviously enjoying himself – he took a few solos and acquitted himself well. At the end of the first set, special guest ‘Heidi’ performed the jazz standard ‘Nature Boy’, rounding off the set nicely.

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I have posted ‘The Baseline Tune’ (Holland) which was second up in the first set, a tune which allowed everyone to stretch out. In Hollands introduction he warned the audience, “If you think you know where this piece is going you’ll be wrong. I don’t compose any tunes like that”. A typical Holland comment and accurate. All of the tunes were composed by him and all were quirky in some way. I liked the quirkiness, the way the tunes moved through many phases – often like a suite. In spite of their complexity they lingered in memory – you couldn’t hum them, but tasty fragments remained in your head. Challenging, satisfying, edgy improvised music for grownups.

Oli Holland’s Jazz Attack: Oli Holland (bass, compositions), Finn Scholes (trumpet), Nick Dow (piano), Michael Howell (guitar), Misha Kourkov (tenor saxophone), Daniel Waterson (drums) – guest Heidi (vocals). CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel basement, Auckland, Wednesday 17th August, 2016

Alex Ward Quintet

Ward 15 pic (3)Alex Ward has been on the scene for a few years now and he has appeared at the CJC a number of times. This time he appeared with a group of formidable younger musicians; all respected about town. His programme was pleasantly challenging as it offered contrasting tunes. From the quirky Carla Bley composition ‘King Korn’ to the perennially popular Disney tune ‘Never never land’. Then, for the second time in as many weeks we heard a Cold Play cover – this time ‘Daylight’ (arr. by Taylor Egsti). Rounding off the set list were a number of his own compositions including the appealing ‘Rakino’ which I have heard before. Wards compositions have a definite melodicism about them.Ward 15 pic (4)I am a real Carla Bley fan and so it surprised and pleased me to hear ‘King Korn’. I also have a real liking for her ‘Ida Lupino’. Bley’s repertoire is not played anywhere near enough for my liking. Her tunes are often closer to the avant-garde, but still accessible to main stream listeners. Ward showed no fear in tackling the angular jerky rhythms of King Korn and the result was pleasing. He had surrounded himself with exactly the right musicians for the task. On bass was Cameron McArthur, a perennial favourite who must now be considered a heavyweight about town in spite of his youth. The drummer was Cameron Sangster and again a highly experienced and gifted musician. Sangster is a multi faceted drummer who can move between soul, big band and small ensemble work with ease. We recently saw him with the Auckland Jazz Orchestra where he put on a stunning performance. Ward 15 pic (5)Additional musicians came to the bandstand at various points; Kushal Talele on tenor saxophone and flute and Michael Howell on guitar. I had previously only encountered Ward playing in a trio format and this was a chance for us to see what he would do with an expanded ensemble. The diversity of material worked for them – none of it highly arranged but allowing for free-flowing interaction.Ward 15 picI had only heard Talele once before and he naturally sounded different on this gig. Here he was appropriately the competent sideman, not the hard-driving Coltrane referencing leader. I like both aspects of his playing. He is a musician that I am definitely keen to see more of – especially when he dives deep into that denser material he favours. The ever smiling Howell is well liked and respected as an up and coming young guitarist. He is seen to greatest effect in Roger Manins ‘Grg67’ band.Ward 15 pic (2)Whether by accident or design, Ward celebrates Carla Bley in an important year. 2015 saw Bley receive the highest public honour in Jazz, as she was the recipient of the NEA (National Endowment of the Arts) Jazz Masters Award.

The Alex Ward Quintet: Alex Ward (piano), Cameron McArthur (bass), Cameron Sangster (drums), Kushal Talele (tenor saxophone, flute), Michael Howell (guitar).

‘Grg67’ & Manins Crustacean Empathy

Grg67 (9)There are a lot of interesting stories on the Jazz circuit and some of them more improbable than others. None more so than a gig dedicated to the Manukau Harbour mud crab Grg67 (Varunidae:Helice). This ten legged estuarine creature has inspired Roger Manins to name a band after him and to compose a significant number of tunesGrg67 (15) in his honour. I could say that environmental activism fuelled the gig (and in part it was), but the affection and respect Manins exhibits towards these crustaceans is more complex than that. It is the respect of a dedicated Flounder fisherman; coloured by the quirkiness of an improvising musician. To quote: “When we play these compositions there are sharp claws and a soft underbelly; at times we can move unpredictably sideways at great speed”.  Manins demonstrated this to great effect as he swiftly shuffled in alternate directions. You couldn’t make this stuff up. As the gig unfolded he delighted the audience with his antics and with the subsequent ‘crab’ influenced compositions.Grg67 (14) Underneath the crusty carapace were a bunch of good tunes and as Manins inferred, they were tangentially tricky and replete with interesting musical twists. Good improvisers are always on the look out for new challenges, new ways to interpret the world about them. In putting together ‘Grg67’ a fresh vehicle for improvisation is born. By bringing in several less experienced musicians Manins has fulfilled an older imperative. To challenge and encourage those beginning the improvising journey. This is how it should work, but many older musicians forget that and remain in their comfort zones. Everyone stepped up here under Manins watchful eye.Grg67 (7)The crab which is the central focus of these sets is Greg, but as Manins so eloquently explains “Crabs don’t use the letter ‘E’. It something to do with their waste not want not utilitarianism”. Other tunes had titles like ‘Crab Empathy’. These tunes and the stories that surrounded them evoked powerful mental images. As the music washed over us you could sense the ebb and flow of the tides. You could easily imagine a predatory Flounder sending the ever watchful crabs scuttling into their burrows (Flounder are none too bright according to net fisherman).Grg67 (6)Michael Howell and Tristan Deck are the youngest members of the ensemble. Howell is a Jazz student and with each month his guitar work grows more impressive. As his confidence grows he stretches himself and playing with Manins is exactly what he needs. He is ready for the deep end of the crab pool. On this gig he played a borrowed Fender and it sat well with him. That Tristan Deck played so well did not surprise me at all; his career trajectory assured as he increasingly takes his place among the better Jazz drummers of the city. He was good when I saw him two years ago; now he is very good. For the second time this month Mostyn Cole appears at the CJC. This time he held the groove with electric bass. He is reliable and multi faceted. Again Manins showed how seamlessly he slots into very different situations. He presented a complex set of tunes to good effect, navigating break-neck tempos and fusing complexities with an inexhaustible supply of good humour.

Estuarine crabs like Grg67 are highly skilled marine engineers. Purifying and oxygenating their environment in innovative ways. They are unafraid to identify as gender non specific. If you see one amongst the Mangroves, spare a thought for it (or its 80 Kiwi cousins). They are a hard-working cog in the indigenous ecosystem and as deserving of a Jazz quartet as any animal. The crab you see might even be ‘Grg67’ or one of his offspring, so say hi while you’re at it.

The Clip is ‘Bennetts Radio Blues’ (Manins).

Grg67 : Roger Manins (leader, compositions, tenor sax), Michael Howell (Fender guitar), Mostyn Cole (electric bass), Tristan Deck (drums)

CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 1885 Britomart, Auckland 29th July 2015

 

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Michael Howell & Kenji Holdaway @ CJC

Howell Holdaway 075 This was ’emerging artists’ night and you wouldn’t have thought so. The club had packed to capacity and the performances were far beyond what you’d expect from students. The artists approached their sets differently, but the end results were equally satisfying. Both study at the Auckland University Jazz School and if that institution is turning out students of this quality it certainly reflects well on the faculty. Howell Holdaway 077Michael Howell is from West Auckland and for some reason a number of excellent guitarists emerge from that quadrant. Growing up in the Waitakere ranges seems to have gifted his playing with an expansiveness and it is not hard to imagine big vistas and tree-clad hills during his ballad numbers. Howells set opened with a ballad and edged into the faster tempos later. His thoughtful opening took us deep inside the music and this was a good way to start a set. As well as his own tunes he featured compositions by Ben Monder, Sam Rivers and John Scofield. When a guitar trio doesn’t use an organ or piano there is more space to work in. This was well utilised by Howell although he is also adept in larger group situations. I heard him a few days later when he sat in with a number of very experienced musicians and he stepped into that space effortlessly. There were two numbers with piano and fellow student Crystal Choi sat in for these (also adding a vocal line). The other musicians were Eamon Edmundson-Wells on Bass (who also played bass in the second set) and Tristan Deck on drums. These former UoA students have already made their mark on the scene.  Howell Holdaway 081Kenji Holdaway led the second set and his approach was quite different. Most of the tunes he chose favoured collective improvisation and they draw upon diverse genres. His bandstand presence and the way he approached tunes oozed confidence. He had also chosen some former UoA students to accompany him and his choice was right on the money. J Y Lee is a gifted alto player and he can work the spectrum from avant-garde through to the lyrical ballads that give sentiment a good name. His musicality shone through during this gig and he just gets better and better. On Rhodes and piano was Conner Mcaneny and he often pushed the group into a freewheeling fusion space. Once again It impressed me how well his playing served the music as it was far from formulaic. When the others were playing his comping chords acted as clever punctuation; urging them to reach further and deeper. Another surprise was Tom Legget on drums and perhaps I have not been paying proper attention. I recall him sitting in during the CJC Jam Sessions of 2012.  Now he is a fully formed drummer. His contributions tasteful and decisive. Eamon Edmundson-Wells was on bass once again and he showed what a tasteful player he is.  While the band was good it was Holdaway who dominated. It was not that he injected himself into others solos for he would regularly lay out respectfully. It was his impressive command of the guitar, that and the sense that he was really across this gig. Howell Holdaway 078