The value of having a Jazz Club in your city should never be underestimated as the experience of hearing quality live music in an intimate setting is far superior to anything that you will experience in a concert hall. Even international musicians tell you this although it is against their best interests to say so. What you pay the big bucks for in the concert hall or stadium, you buy for a pittance at a small club doorway. In addition, you get to meet the musicians and best of all experience the music up close. This post is to remind people that Auckland’s premier Jazz Club, the CJC has moved to Anthology 375 K’ Road, Auckland City. Tonight, TTTenors with Manins, Sugg & Mackey.
The CJC came into being around eleven years ago and since its inception, there have been at least five moves. The audience always follows like pied pipers and I have no doubt that they will make the switch from Backbeat to Anthology seamlessly. What we have in the CJC is a gift of inestimable value. Its mission is simple. Showcase high-quality original improvised music and provide a place for musicians to play. As a not-for-profit enterprise, it runs on good-will. Underpinning this is the hard work of its founder/administrators Roger Manins, Caro Manins & Ben McNichol. On hand to assist them are numerous Jazz Students and other volunteers. The final ingredient is the listening audience and keeping the attendance levels high is essential to its continuance. Tonight, Wed 5th June 2019 sees the new venues launch gig and please note, it’s at Anthology, not the Backbeat as previously advertised. Don’t miss the chance to hear three of Australasia’s top tenor players (with Kevin Field, Cam McArthur, and Mark Lockett as rhythm section) You can get up to date gig information at www.creativejazzclub.co.nz
If there are Jazz Lovers who don’t love Mike Nock’s music, I have never met them. Should any be located send them to me and I will arrange for remedial education. I have just returned from Australia and while there I caught up with Mike. Over dinner, we discussed, the dismal state of the music industry and the tenacity of musicians – who keep producing great music in spite of that. I read a quote recently by the preeminent Jazz writer Ted Gioia who penned the following; (paraphrased slightly) ‘Jazz musicians get frustrated, even angry, at the lack of opportunity – but they keep playing and in playing at such high-level they experience a rare joy that few people get to experience’. And they share this with us in spite of the poor remuneration and industry marginalisation. As many will know, Mike Nock was badly injured last year when an inattentive driver bowled him at a pedestrian crossing.
I cannot imagine a world without him performing and amazingly, bravely, he is doing just that. While I was there his Quartet performed at the 616 Foundry Jazz Club in Ultimo and he demonstrated to everyone that it takes more than an out of control 4×4 to keep him down. It is all intact, that Nock magic, the great compositions, the surprises, the deep – deep blues, the unconfined breath of freedom, and that innate swing. On stage with him were a few old friends – expat Kiwi bass player Brett Hurst (always marvelous), ‘Pug’ Waples (a treat) and for the first time I met tenor player Karl Laskowski – anyone familiar with the Nock recordings will be familiar with his lovely sound and clean lines. When Mike is up to it he will come back and perform for us at the new venue – as he said – ‘Godzone is my home man’.
Keep your ears open, attend the live gigs, buy the albums – this music feeds the soul and is an oasis of sanity in a fractured world.
It was a foolish oversight on my part – I hadn’t visited Melbourne in fifteen years. I had seen quite a few Melbourne improvisers perform in Sydney or Auckland but failed to track them back to their native habitat. The last time I was there, Bennett’s Lane was still a thing, but closed for two weeks. That was the week between Christmas and New Year; that arid Jazzless desert in the live music calendar. With family now residing in Melbourne, I decided to atone for my sins and I headed off while the Jazz calendar was over-flowing with tasty offerings.
My first stop en route was Sydney where I met up with Mike Nock. That evening we caught a gig at the Foundry 616 where Nadje Nordhuis and James Shipp were playing. When Nock enters a venue the room rearranges itself. You immediately become aware of people in the dark interior, gathering quietly to pay their respects. It was great to see him looking so well and to hear about his new projects. We miss him in Auckland as he has not played here for over a year. I had previously seen Noordhuis perform when the Darcy James Argue band came through Auckland. She is a member of both the Darcy Argue and the Maria Schnieder ensembles – Shipp is a vibraphonist percussionist and ‘synthesisist’ and well-known in New York. The gig opened the Sydney Women’s Jazz Festival and it was well received. I was also delighted to catch up with Thomas Botting who played bass for that particular gig. A robustly healthy and startlingly fit Botting. After a few days with my daughter and grandchildren, I headed to the domestic airport and Melbourne.
To my delight, I was greeted at Melbourne Airport by large signs reading – ‘Welcome Home from Jail Granddad’. Aussie humour is unique and often intentionally embarrassing. Hiding behind false sensibilities is not an option. If you don’t like good-natured piss-take humour – go elsewhere (Kiwis get this). It is no accident that our lost, lamented and beloved Kiwi comedian John Clarke and the actor/comedian Bruno Lawrence settled there. A larrikin world-view runs through the music as well. There is a unique openness about much of Australian improvised music. It is of course informed by the Jazz roots of America, but strangely unbeholden to it. The musicians are liberal-minded and many are unashamedly strident in their political views – this can feed the music as well. New iterations of the Liberation Music Orchestra are forming in Melbourne and that makes perfect sense.
There were quite a few Melbourne musicians on my list and at the top was Barney McAll. It is no secret that I am fascinated by the depth and scope of McAll’s music and interviewing him is always an interesting experience. Some musicians go to great lengths to hide from personal scrutiny, believing that their music is all you need to know about them. That is an entirely valid viewpoint, but a curse if you’re a biographer or reviewer looking for context. When I review, I try to avoid armchair appraisals; attending live music whenever possible; eager to know something of the musician, the thought processes, philosophical leanings; hoping to look behind the mask. Possessing a stubborn belief that an artist and the music are two sides of an alchemic essence.
McAll texted me his address and I ventured out into the heat, trying to make sense of the train system. I got off somewhere in the outer suburbs; prophetically, somewhere near Mooroolbark. There was a bing and I looked at my phone. The text read, ‘Round the back your grace – ignore the dog’. McAll greeted me warmly and we went inside for a Vegemite crumpet. As he was wearing military-style camouflage, I didn’t dare tell him that Kiwis only eat Marmite (look up the great Marmageddon debate which erupted after the Christchurch earthquake). It is always a pleasure talking to McAll, but unforeseen things occur when your guard is down. He played me some new compositions, showed me a video he was working on and we discussed the coming year’s projects. Then unexpectedly, I found myself the subject. Being interviewed about my poetry and the duty of creative artists to get their work out there. As we talked, and as if it were the most natural thing in the world, he handed me a grinning ventriloquist’s dummy and sat another in the next chair. The discussion continued, was filmed in real time; two child-sized puppets and me; and the McAll directing it Fellini fashion. For more about McAll’s recent ‘Hearing The Blood’ album or his catalogue, go to iTunes, Spotify or www.extracelestialarts.bandcamp.com – read my recent blog post, December 4, 2017.
While I was there, McAll phoned Julien Wilson to find out his gig schedule for me. There was a gig of his on in Northcote and so I dashed back to the Jazz Corner hotel before heading out into the warm Melbourne night. It was an auspicious night to be out and about in Melbourne as the divisive and ill-considered same-sex marriage plebiscite had delivered a resounding yes vote. Whole inner suburbs were closed as revellers partied. Adding to the celebratory mood, a significant World Cup qualifying match was underway (which the Aussies subsequently won to the chagrin of Kiwis who lost their qualifying match). All of the above spells happy chaos in an art and sports-mad city. And I had music happening – lots of it. A scarfed man sitting opposite me on the tram was laughing and crying in turns. He was so drunk that his eyes revolved in opposite directions. Someone asked him if he was anticipating a win and he nodded chuckling, then just as quickly he cried inconsolably – ‘Cats are bastards’ he mumbled – ‘I just fell over one and hurt my arm’.
Jules Wilson is a tall friendly man and he plays like he lives with his heart on his sleeve. I have followed his Facebook posts and listened to his music for years; no-one is ever left wondering what his worldview is. Like many musicians, he loathes injustice or inequality and you can hear this manifest in his sound. Not in an angry way but in an earnest cajoling way, demanding that humanity ups it’s game. Creating original improvised music taps into a deep well of experience and with mature players, their character oozes through the notes. A lot of modern saxophonists have a raspiness to their tone and often produce a vibrato-less sound. Wilson has a rich full-bodied sound and it touches on an era when the tenor giants ruled the world. Appropriately there is often some breathy vibrato at the end of a phrase. This is not to say that he is an old-fashioned player because he isn’t. It is rather that the history is in that tone – ancient to modern.
There is another factor which could influence his tenor sound – he doubles on clarinet. The clarinet is the first horn he mastered. While many saxophonists treat that horn like a difficult inlaw, Wilson perseveres, regarding it with a begrudging affection. I was stunned by the beauty of his clarinet playing and how modern the instrument sounded in his hands (he played a fast-paced bop classic, not a ballad). I asked him in the break how he felt about the horn – “it’s a punishing unforgiving instrument, but I can’t bring myself to abandon it” he told me.
Wilson came sharply onto my radar with McAll’s extraordinary Mooroolbark album but he has long been one of Australia’s most successful Jazz Musicians. Winning the National Jazz Award in 1994, The Music Council of Australia Freedman Fellowship in 2006, The 2008 Bell Award – Artist of the Year, a Bell Award trifecta in 2014 and the APRA Art Music Award for Excellence in 2016. I have recently been listening to his back catalogue which is available on Band Camp (some CD albums are also still available). His output is diverse and all of it interesting – an edgy album with Jim Black, Mark Hellas and Steve Magnussen – several recordings with his popular trio (Stephen Grant on accordion and Stephen Magnusson on guitar) – an extraordinary couple of albums featuring Barney McAll on piano, Jonathan Zwartz bass and Allan Browne on drums. There are around twenty albums in all. All are worth a listen but his ‘This is Always’ album is an absolute gem (the live ‘This Narrow Isthmus’ which followed, likewise). The former harks back to a specific era in the best possible way – not as a tribute album, but as a rekindling of a bright flame.
The story behind the album is instructive as it takes us to the heart of an in-the-moment creative process. The musicians wanted to capture the vibe and style of the famous Prestige Meeting Sessions. McAll and Wilson swapped a few charts but had no detailed discussions – no rehearsals were scheduled. On the day of recording, the four turned up at the studio with a ‘first-take’ approach. No baffles and no headphones were used. This allowed for a sense of immediacy and real-time heightened interaction. McAll reimagining the piano styles of the era in passing – some Evans like intros and even using the locked hand’s style briefly. Wilson sending forth a flurry of swoon-worthy fat warm tones. None of this sounded contrived – it sounded like the present and past fused into a cohesive whole. The album is an important milestone in Australian music and no antipodean Jazz lover should be without a copy. It should not be regarded as a trip down memory lane, but as a testament to the eternal now. The unsuspecting will believe it to be a loved classic album of the Prestige-era and scratch their heads to place it.
When Bennetts Lane passed into history, the Melbourne club scene rose to the challenge. The Bennetts management (or some of them but minus the name – it’s a complicated story) opened a new club in the industrial heartland of Brunswick. The JazzLab is a stunning venue. Situated in a basement, it has all that old-school Jazz Club vibe but not at the expense of good taste. It is comfortable but not over-decorated (I have seen some shockers in other countries, trying so hard to be cool that they end up as museums to kitsch). More importantly, the sight lines are good and the acoustics great. I attended the JazzLab with expat Auckland musician Matt Steele and my son Jeremy and the gig was a treat. It was the album release of ‘Finding The Balance’ by the Paul Williamson Quintet. This was a solid unit with an inexhaustible array of talented firepower and good tunes. All were new to me except Jamie Oehlers, who I see perform regularly.
The unit had swags of punch and plenty of textural contrasts. It was big enough to sound like a larger ensemble at times, but the writing allowed individuals to shine. Oehlers was on fire, hitting sweet spot after sweet spot during solos – carving his path through the air like a titan. Closer to earth, but equally attention-grabbing was the leader Williamson – his sound control impressive – his trumpet speaking a very human dialect. I had not encountered Andrea Keller before, but her tasteful minimalist approach also caught my attention – it contrasted nicely with the fulsome horns. The remaining musicians a six-string electric bass player Christopher Hale and a very tasty drummer James Mclean. It was a great launch in an interesting venue – what could be better.
Keller, in particular, intrigued me, so I looked through the gig guide to see if she was playing elsewhere. My luck was in as she was leading an interesting trio at the Uptown Jazz Cafe in Fitzroy. The next night, was a warm one, and I walked to Fitzroy, pausing to eat street food on the way. Finally, I stumbled up the stairs to a very warm Uptown Jazz Cafe. The venue was not air-conditioned and ill-lit, but the gloom and the heat added to the ambiance. As the band set up, a shaft of dim orange light beamed on them, illuminating the trio as ghostly orange specters – enlarging and distorting their forms as it projected them onto a screen. The music bordered on avant-garde and the setting was therefore perfect.
The trio of piano, violin, and electric bass didn’t disappoint. Keller’s serialist credentials were very much on-show as she spun out a filigree of wonderfully intricate patterns. At first, appearing to be repeating motifs, but a more careful listening revealing otherwise. Finely detailed changes to the underlying structure guided the ear into a finely wrought lace work of notes. In this, I detected the influence of Riley or other adventurous souls. The violin and bass meeting the challenge, adding colour, texture, and melodic contrast (I didn’t catch their names). I had recently been listening to Terry Riley’s ‘Lazy Afternoon Among the Crocodiles’, so this gig was very pleasing to my ear.
I saw other gigs during the week, but the standouts were those mentioned. Melbourne is a city of the arts and a very European styled city. It is therefore not surprising that Jazz flourishes there. I have traveled through many of the worlds great cities in the past year, but this city is as Jazz rich as the best.
Having reviewed the ‘Two Out’ album a few weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed it – it was a certainty that I would enjoy the ‘Two Out’ live gig. Mike Nock and Roger Manins are rightly celebrated as being at the top of their game, but neither trades on reputation. Both approached this gig with humility. As they settled into the music you could feel the absorption; punctuated by occasional smiles when a particular phrase surprised them, often delighting at what fell under their fingers. At times they seemed to defeat the physical limitations of performance; simultaneously observing and creating. This is a Zen thing and it cuts to the heart of improvised music. Others noticed it as well; one musician said to me afterwards, “Man there was no ego on that bandstand and it was a beautiful thing to witness’. He was absolutely right. Most albums require careful planning, the ideas gestating over time, rehearsal upon rehearsal shaping the direction. Then there is the other type arising from happenstance. ‘Two Out’ arose out of a relaxed jam between friends. Manins was relaxing with Nock one January morning in Sydney when they decided to play a few tunes (as musicians often do when relaxing). What took their fancy were the often forgotten tunes, ‘the ones that our mothers used to sing’. As they worked their way through the tunes Nock suggested that they record; just for fun. Shortly after they ended up recording in the Sydney Conservatorium’s Verbruggen Hall. The hall contained a wonderful Fazioli grand piano much to Nock’s delight. It is our good fortune that ‘Two Out’ was performed last week for New Zealand audiences. Nock explained that they had actually recorded 16 songs, but the limitations of CD space required these being reduced to eleven. On Wednesday we heard a significant number of the tunes from the album plus a few that didn’t make the final cut. In particular there was a version of ‘Softly as a Morning Sunrise’ (Romberg/Hammerstein). A wild joyous free-flowing version which brought out the best in both musicians. At times gentle but at other times carrying the echoes of a boisterous 1930’s radio performance. At that moment, listening, I visualised my mother, leaning over an old upright Victrola and humming along happily. The other addition was ‘But Beautiful’ (Jimmy Van Heusen). An overwhelming sense of respect and intimacy was evident in their interpretation of that tune. It brought a smile to everyone’s lips. When friends like this collaborate it is profound …… but beautiful.
Two Out: Mike Nock (piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), The album is available from FWM Records. The Venue CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 23rd September 2015
Sydney means two things to me; family and music. I get there as often as I can. One sultry night about two years ago I was listening to Mike Nock playing the blues (as only Mike can). It was a catchy new tune titled ‘Start up Blues’. I collared him during the break and asked him about it. “I composed it for the Foundry opening” he said. “Do you know about the Foundry 616”? I didn’t and so he filled in the details. He spoke warmly of it so I determined to visit the next time I was in Sydney.
The Foundry 616 is located in Ultimo on a stretch of Harris road, almost lost between a maze of under and over-passes. It is (or was) the newest addition to Sydney’s Jazz scene. The difficulty in locating it is amply rewarded the minute you step inside. It is spacious, it serves tasty food and the acoustics are surprising good for such a large uneven space. It is also a friendly place, tolerant of visiting Kiwi photographers and reviewers like me. I always feel welcomed.During my first visit I caught the amazing New York based guitarist Mike Moreno. Attending a gig featuring Moreno had long been on my bucket list and I was not disappointed. He was happy to allow non-flash photography and I had a seat at the front table; perfect. For his Australian tour he employed two gifted local musicians: Ben Vanderwal drums and Alex Boneham bass (both familiar to New Zealand audiences). I have many recordings featuring Moreno, but what really struck me was that his best on recordings, is exactly how he sounds in person. Given the sound control in modern recording studios and given the expanse and quirky shape of the room, this is surprising. I was later to experience the same clarity at other Foundry 616 gigs. The venue sound technician and the sound system get a big tick. Sound quality matters and especially with artists of this quality. To my thinking Moreno is the most lyrical of modern guitarists. Clean flowing lines, fresh ideas and an astonishing clarity of tone. As moves through the pieces, often at breakneck speed, and even when glissing, his fluidity is unbroken. There is a hint of mournfulness to his tone which is most attractive. I hear many gifted Jazz guitarists, but to date this gig remains the highlight. His set list traversed recent albums as he played a mix of lesser known standards and originals; ‘I have a dream’ (Hancock) being the standout. While his demeanour is quiet, perhaps even a little serious, his playing denotes unalloyed joy and exuberance.My second visit was to see premier Australian Jazz vocalist Vince Jones. I have a deep liking for male Jazz singers but sadly there are not that many to choose from these days. Our younger selves do not sound like our older selves and in Vince Jones this sits extremely well. His is a lived in voice, full of rich life experience. An honest voice and above all a true Jazz voice. He can make you smile and cry in turns and his lyrics are like no one else’s. If you listen carefully the realisation comes; Jones is jazz protest singer. He is closer in sentiment to Gil Scott Heron or perhaps Billy Bragg and Bob Dylan than to any torch-song crooner. His recordings while marvellous don’t prepare you for the experience of hearing him in person. He has a compelling stage presence, exuding the vulnerability that Chet radiated. Unlike Chet he also exudes real human warmth and empathy.As he tells personal stories about his grandparents, his budgerigars, women deserving of respect, his environmental concerns, you feel deeply connected. When he shakes his fist at the ‘big end of town’, calls for kindness towards refugees and gives voice to your innermost feelings, you shake your fist along with him. Since that visit I have transcribed some of his lyrics. I would now add gifted poet to the list of his accomplishments. Jones writes most of his own material (often in collaboration with his accompanists like Matt McMahon or Sam Keevers). Both were present that night as was an old friend, bass player Brett Hirst; James Hauptmann was on drums. Fine musicians and great company. Earlier in the day I caught up with Barney McAll and interviewed him regarding his stunning Mooroolbark album. He was to premier that at the Foundry in a few weeks. I was sorely tempted to delay my departure, but work called me back to New Zealand. McAll was once an accompanist to Jones as well.My third and most recent visit naturally brought me back to the Foundry. A pianist/singer Rodric White was on the bill. White was unknown to me, but again I enjoyed the gig. He opened with a few tributes and it surprised me to hear him announce a Keith Jarrett number. Even more so when he played an extract from the Koln Concert. That took guts and he did it well. Later he played some of his own compositions, plus Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles and several Sting numbers. He was disarmingly dismissive of his vocal abilities but he sang well. Stylistically he is close to the classic Jazz singers. Accompanying him was Hugh Fraser (bass), Steve Ley (drums) with guests Paul Cutlan (tenor & soprano saxophones) and Jenny Marie Lang (guitar & vocals). Paul Cutlan was the only name I knew, a well-respected session saxophonist. During the second half White called for pianist Chris Cody to come to the bandstand. I first met Cody in New Zealand and we are now friends. I have a deep respect for him as an artist and as a human being. This rounded out the evening nicely. Cody an internationally recognised artist, is back in Sydney for a while. There is something about his approach and his innate sense of pulse that sets him apart. He understands the importance of leaving space between notes; easily moving inside and out during a solo. He oozes Paris cool. With Cody on piano and White on keys the enjoyment was complete.There are any number of excellent improvising musicians in Australia and New Zealand and we are lucky that they are so accessible. There are also thousands of people who love improvised music, but here’s the rub. The enthusiasts don’t always make the effort to attend gigs. The consequences of taking the local Jazz scene for granted are too dreadful to contemplate. If we support local Jazz we need to commit. In spite of the many world-class musicians in Australasia the music is more precarious than we think. Running clubs like the ‘Foundry 616’, the ‘505’ or the ‘CJC (Creative Jazz Club)’ is high risk and if the clubs struggle, so does the music. It is quite possible that I’m a fanatic, but I’ve attended more than 250 Jazz gigs in the last four years. If you read this, it’s because you love this music with all its variability. Value what you have people and make a point of supporting your local Jazz clubs and gigs. Some amazing musicians depend on you.
A few weeks ago I received a review copy of the Nock/Manins ‘Two-Out’ duo album. As it was late I put it straight into my work bag ready to play in the car. When the morning came, the distractions of the work day overtook me and I forgot it was there. It was not until a week later that I found it and listened.
Placing the album into my Hi Fi changer I started to open the mail; what I heard stopped me in my tracks. This was chill down the spine stuff and I hardly noticed the mail slipping from my fingers to the carpet. Man this was so beautiful. Elegant, unadorned thoughtful standards, played by musicians who understood every nuance of the music. Memories of earlier albums immediately came to mind. I found it impossible not to recall the duo albums of Art Pepper & George Cables or the Maybeck Hall duos. Many of the above mentioned albums were piano and alto saxophone, but the vibe here was the same. Heart warming, thoughtful, mature explorations of Jazz standards in duo format. The tune in the clip below is ‘Black and Blue’ (Waller/Brooks/Razaf)
The choice of tunes is impossible to fault and I particularly loved ‘Black and Blue’, ‘It’s the Talk of the Town’ and ‘Golden Earings’. Mike Nock’s deft hand is detectable in the selection. He has a happy knack of finding tunes that we had almost forgotten. Tunes that we once loved but carelessly forgot about. This album is special and perhaps it’s because I am an old dog with a lot of good music in my head that it triggers such happy memories. This is an album that could only be realised by established musicians with nothing to prove. Mature artists comfortable in their musical skins. Each track communicates the joy of exploration and speaks to us of companionship.
The less is more approach serves the album well. It is interesting how different Manins sounds here. His gentle and slightly thinner sound while unusual for him, is just right for the project. This is a side of him that we seldom hear; light airy minimalism. Nock is also light of touch, allowing the music to breathe and speak for itself. Maybe younger listeners will not make the connections I have, but I am confident that it will resonate with anyone who listens with care. It will resonate because some wonderful tunes were paid the respect they deserve. This is an album to treasure and play over and again.
Review: “Two Out’ Mike Nock (piano), Roger Manins (tenor Saxophone) – the album can be purchased from FWM Records or from any of the artists gigs.
A lot’s been written about Mike Nock and he is well recorded. In spite of this there is so much more to say and the unfolding story has come to define Australasian Jazz. It would be accurate to describe him as one of the greatest musicians New Zealand has produced, but Mike Nock deserves evaluation on a much wider stage than Oceania. As lucky as we feel owning him, he is a citizen of the world, highly ranked among the best that global Jazz has to offer.
This was summed up by one of the audience; an American who has been following the international Jazz Scene for many years. He shook his head in amazement and said “That was the best performance I have heard in ages”. He asked about Mike’s history and I gave him a potted version. “Oh yeah” he said. “Well all of those years in America have given him that deep blues feel that only top players realise”.
I caught up with Mike before the gig and he was his usual friendly self. Over dinner there were jokes and numerous war stories. Because I have attended too many loud gigs my hearing is not quite as good as it was. At one point the drummer James Waples said something to me which I missed entirely. I apologised, explaining that my eyesight and hearing were failing me. Mike leapt on the comment as quick as lightning, saying, “Man don’t worry. That’s exactly what we like in a critic”.
There was the briefest of discussions between the band members about the set list, which ended in Mike saying, “We’ll figure it out as we go and you’ll know when you hear me start to play”. While this is not unusual among Jazz musicians, it was evident that Mike would be digging into some obscure and unrehearsed standards during the evening.
The spirit of Bernie McGann hung over us as he had passed the previous evening. Mike spoke movingly of him and then he played one of Bernie’s compositions followed by ‘Bernie’s Tune’ (Bernie Miller) and the lovely old standard ‘No Moon at All’ (David Mann). ‘No Moon at all’ is hardly ever played these days but it was once very popular. It was famously recorded by Julie London, Nat Cole, Mel Torme and Anita O’Day. There are more recent versions by Karrin Alyson and Brad Mehldau. In Mike Nock’s hands this jaunty mid-tempo classic took on a deep bluesy feel and as it unfolded he achieved something that only the Jazz greats can manage.
The tune turned into something else; it was somehow transformed into ‘every tune’. From the first few bars everyone smiled and many whispered in the dark, “Oh I must know this but I can’t recall the name”. Like many probing improvisers Mike hummed and sang as he played. As the piece unfolded something extraordinary happened. People started quietly humming along with the trio; a deep connection was made and it was primal. I’m certain that many in the audience had never heard the tune before, but they thought that they had. Keith Jarrett has often invoked this state of grace, finding a hidden place deep within the music. So has Mike Nock. Several musicians later commented that he had moved in and out of the song form and that the bluesy overlay had been utterly effective. Another delightful old tune that the trio played was ‘Sweet Pumpkin’ (Ronnell Bright).
On Drums was James Waples and he certainly lives up to his reputation. He has featured on several of Mike’s albums and goes back a long way with Mike. There is a subtlety to his drumming that is hard to put into words. He is a powerful presence whether executing the softest brushwork or a driving upbeat tempo. He has a great ear and knows when to push the others or hold back. He is perfect for a multi faceted piano trio like this and I would go out of my way to hear him again.
Many Kiwi’s have forgotten (and many Australians will deliberately overlook the fact), but Brett Hirst is an expat New Zealander. He is highly regarded on the Australian scene and like James he has had a long association with Mike. When these three are in lockstep it is extraordinary. Like the others Brett is a deep listener and clearly at ease in this open-ended format. At one point in the program Mike stopped and said, “What shall we play now, something unexpected?”. Then he added, “Oh I know, I will try this”. Brett asked hopefully, “Can we know?” The number had started before an answer could be given and he was immediately there. Brett was up to handling any curve balls thrown and clearly relished them.
During the second set the trio were ready to take things further out and we sensed that they were in a zone where the communication is telepathic. It is during these explorations that we see another side of their music. Every interplay however subtle conveys layers of meaning and the spaces between the notes communicates a profundity. This is art-music at its very best but for all that it is never far from its blues roots. I have listened to Jazz across the globe and you would never, never hear better than this.
Who: Mike Nock (piano), Brett Hirst (bass), James Waples (drums). www.mikenock.com
It was sometime in early June when I first heard the news. I was sitting with Roger, talking music and shooting the breeze about who we rated. Suddenly he half turned and said, “Mikes coming back to do a CJC gig”. The words hung in the air like a siren song and for me the impatient waiting began from that moment. If Mike Nock was coming to town there would be magic aplenty. That’s what it meant. That is what it has always meant.
The word seeped out, first to the music students and then to the wider world, like ripples in an ever-widening arc. The club would be full that night.
Closer to the gig Roger asked Mike who he wanted in the band. They quickly settled on a trio format, not your usual piano trio but one with piano, tenor saxophone and drums. Roger Manins on tenor, Frank Gibson on drums. Mike had jettisoned the anchor for this gig and he was quite definite about that, no bass. This is a challenging lineup for a pianist (and for the other band members) because no-one is there to hold the centre. If you slip there is greater distance to fall. In this different space wonderful things can also happen and they did. This was a night among nights.
Barely able to contain my impatience I rolled into the club foyer three-quarters of an hour early. The queue was already snaking back past the basement stairway and well into the upstairs bar. A seething mass of eager faces. When the doors finally opened there was Mike sitting sideways on the piano stool and Roger was blowing a few scales nearby. The music stand sitting to one side abandoned, an unnecessary distraction, in a free ranging gig going where the music took it.
Before the first set I caught up with Mike, talking about his various projects (he was playing with a New Zealand string quartet the next night). He told me that he was coming back to the CJC with his newest Australian trio in a few months. Next time bass and drums. We talked a bit about Jazz musicians from the past, Kiwi’s that he had played with and then the discussion shifted to the older pianists who straddled the swing to bop era. Like all great pianists Mike lets the entire history of Jazz fall under his fingers and so I asked him about players like Hank Jones and Mary Lou Williams. When I listen to them I hear such strong left hands, walking chords, syncopation, hinting at a time when ‘harlem stride’ was still an influence. “The newer and stronger bass players changed that” said Mike. “As the bass lines become stronger and pickups better the need for such dominant left hand work fell away. There was too much conflict”. As a non musician I had never considered that and it all made perfect sense. I marvelled all the more that Be Bop/Post Bop greats like Hank Jones kept a touch of this earlier style and even when accompanied by strong bass players like Ray Brown, George Mraz and Ron Carter. I wondered if we would ever see those strong left hand stylists again. I soon got my answer.
The set list was not really planned and it changed and evolved as the evening wore on. The numbers selected were all standards, but they were somehow fresh, as if revealed for the very first time. The first number was ‘When Your Smiling’ (Shay/Fisher/Goodwin 1889) and the second number was ‘Gone With The Wind’ (Allie Wrubel 1937). Those two numbers coming together had me wracking my brain as to where I had heard them, heard them played together. Then it came to me, they were both on one of the earliest of the Brubeck Quartet albums. ‘Dave Brubeck at Storyville 1954’ was a wild live recording that lacked polish but oozed soul and immediacy. Afterwards Mike announced that a Brubeck album had inspired him to play that number – bingo. These are the connections we love. If you ingest a large dollop of Jazz history the memories will reward you.
As they played through the first set I realised that the lack of a bass had not impeded them at all. There it was, that strong left hand of Hank Jones, working the mid lower register while wonderful modern chords and runs flew from his darting right hand. This was a master class for the senses to grapple with, giving us an unparalleled taste of Jazz piano mastery from an oblique angle. No matter what Mike threw his way Roger matched it as they danced in and out of reach like well matched prize fighters . These two have an uncanny level of communication. It was even more evident later when they played ‘Softly as a Morning Sunrise” (Romberg/Hammerstein). They had been considering what to play next when Frank Gibson suggested it. Heads nodded in agreement and Frank set the number up nicely with a melodic intro on his traps. “We will just see where this goes” said Mike, “could be anywhere”and he proceeded to pick at the bones of the melody. Where it went was somewhere wonderful. This is where the magic truly occurred, a moment to be savoured by all present.
They had begun the number, sparingly at first, soon more purposefully. The level of interplay increased as they unpicked the tune. Soon all three were working and pulling at the tune like it was a joyful game. As Roger soloed I watched the trio inching up the intensity by degrees. At first Roger had tapped out time with his right foot as he played, now he was pawing at the ground like a bull about to charge. Mike was rocking madly and then standing and dancing some crazy dance. Frank too was rolling with the beat. By now they were way outside – blowing free of all constraints. It was a moment to savour. The moment.
As I watched these three, so attuned, a thought struck me, Mike Nock is originally from Ngaruawahia, Roger from Waiuku. These two small country towns are close to each other. What are the odds that rural New Zealand would produce two musicians of this quality. Maybe it was something in the upper Waikato water supply?
When Jazz musicians are enjoying themselves there are always moments of hilarity, but on this night the best moment came from an unexpected quarter. The CJC was full, so full that dozens of people were turned away at the door due to the fire regulations. Outside it was winter, but inside it was hot as hell. Mike by now stripped to his T-shirt asked if there was any talcum powder for his hands, which were slippery from the exertion. Caro Manins duly produced a talcum powder container. Mike wrestled with the lid for a few minutes and then handed it to someone else to unscrew. Bigger and younger blokes stepped forward in turn, each saying that they were up to the task, but none could dislodge that damn lid. “Take it back to the shop” said one, “it’s a faulty product”. At this point a diminutive young woman took the container from the frustrated men, gently flicked off the child proof lock and opened it. Men often forget the golden rule in these situations, ask a woman.
During the second set Kim Paterson and Brian Smith sat in for a number or two. Kim and Brian go back a long way with Mike and both have recorded with him.
As the enjoyment washed over me I could hear the words of Sean Wayland from a month earlier as he announced his gig. “New Zealand I would like to thank you for Mike Nock”. With you on that brother.