This is an ensemble of seasoned observers operating from their shared vantage point of empathy and humanism. Jazz at its best reflects the world about it and it never shirks from truth-telling. To achieve this, primal emotions must be invoked. Something to cut through the memes, words, pretty tunes or familiar licks that inhabit our everyday life. It is not that the aforementioned attributes lack validity, but there are many a dances we can choose. This dance invites us to remember, to do better and to pay our dues in the turbulent world that we helped create.
It is unsurprising that this particular group locates the stark beauty hidden among the ashes and the ebbing floodwaters. The mood is darker than in ‘This World’ but in spite of that, the album resonates with hope. It is the hope that follows acknowledgement. This is an album for our times and it touches on the rawness of the human predicament and it does so unflinchingly. To add further context, it was cut in the midst of the epidemic; surreal and unexpected chaos that has characterised our existence of late.
The tunes are all originals composed for the album and it feels like a collaboration in the fullest sense, musicians attuned to each other and to the musical possibilities unfolding ahead.
For example, the intro to ‘Deception’ opens with a single chord, echoed quickly by another. The latter is more percussive, stinging, beautiful, and as those chords decay the mood is established with a series of sparse utterances. This is one of Mike Nock’s trademark devises, to beguile without overwhelming, to explore from an oblique viewpoint, then land you deep inside the tune. When you become aware of the others, everyone is so in sync that it takes your breath away. The process is seamless. This is the product of good writing and great musicianship, with Nock’s compositional input particularly evident throughout (especially so in ‘Winter’).
Any of Julien Wilson’s fans will be delighted with his performance here. Although practically vibrato-less (as modern saxophonists are), he captures a Getz like warmth; on occasion his upper register breaking into cries or sighs, tugging at the heartstrings.
I introduced the album to a friend who was floored by its beauty. Wilson, Stuart and Zwartz react so instinctively to Nock’s phrasing and subtle comping. Adding depth, subtlety, texture and gently playing with the time. Zwartz and Stuart are the go-to musicians for an album like this and without them, the album would be the poorer. However overworked the phrase is, this group are rightly referred to as a supergroup. ‘This World’ attracted accolades and award nominations. ‘Another Dance’ is on the same trajectory.
Mike Nock (piano), Hamish Stuart (drums), Julien Wilson (saxophone, effects), Jonathan Zwartz (bass)
The album is produced by Lionshare Records and is available in digital format on Bandcamp.
There is good quality streaming available upon purchase, and downloads are available in either standard CD format or the higher quality HD 24bit/96khz Audiophile Quality. I downloaded the Audiophile quality album and for those who have good equipment, it is a must. I have seldom heard such astonishing sound definition. It is like being in the studio and hearing the instruments breathe.
JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer.Some of these posts appear on related sites.
Footnote: I hadn’t realised that the tune credits were embedded in each individual track listing. In a message exchange with Julien Wilson later he pointed that out. When I wrote that I detected Mike Nock’s hand in the composition ‘Winter’, I was both wrong and right. ‘Winter’ was composed by Jonathan Zwartz as a tribute Nock’s beautiful ‘Ondas’ from the ECM album of the same name. What a great tribute to a seminal album.
The number of quality Jazz albums coming out of Australia these days is impressive and considering the lack of support from the mainstream music industry, surprising.I have met a number of Australian improvisers over the years and the best of them have one thing in common, a burning desire to reach beyond the mundane. They communicate this passion in spite of the obstacles and they do it convincingly. The best of these are respected across the wider Jazz world. They are a cohort that brings joy to those hear them and the least we can do is pay them our fullest attention. In November 2019, I became aware of four recent Australian albums: Andrea Kellers ‘Transients, volumes 1 & 2,’’This World’ (a collaboration between Mike Nock, Julian Wilson, Hamish Stuart and Jonathan Zwartz) and ‘Stock’ by Julien Wilson. A common denominator linking the above recordings is Wilson, who appears on all four albums (and is the founder of the Melbourne based Lionshare Records). Christopher Hale appears in three of them.
This World: Anyone who has followed pianist Mike Nock over the years will always be hungry for more of his artistry. He never disappoints. A few years ago Wilson confided that he had been planing a collaboration with Nock but that prior commitments always seemed to get in the way. Then in 2018 disaster struck when Nock was hit by a car on a pedestrian crossing. Many feared that his injuries could curtail his career and his fans hoped for a swift recovery. Not long after he left the hospital (and against the odds), he joined Wilson, Stuart and Zwartz for a standards gig. They sounded so good together that they agreed to record an album of originals (with each contributing compositions). Next, Zwartz obtained an arts council grant, and they headed for Sony Studios.
While the results of the two-day session are a testament to their compositional skills, it is their tasteful interplay that remains with you. The album is a thing of soulful beauty, with the compositions coexisting in happy juxtaposition. For example, the cheerfully reflective tune Old’s Cool (Nock) is followed by the moody In The Night Comes The Rain (Zwartz). If you follow the tracklist in chronological order you could be forgiven for thinking that the album is about Nock’s accident. In the Night Comes The Rain – Home – The Dirge – Aftermath– We shall Rise Again; perhaps that is not the case at all, but whatever the motivation the album is an essential addition to any Jazz collection. What musical heavy-weights these musicians are and how effortlessly they weave their magic. There is a hint of ECM about this recording and not least due to the amazing cover artwork by the Icelandic earth photographer Polly Ambermoon.
Transients volume 1 & 2: Late last year I came across the Transients albums by the multi-award-winning pianist and composer Andrea Keller. I first encountered Keller two years ago while I was visiting family in Melbourne. Her compelling stylistic originality intrigued me and I made a point of attending several of her performances in a row; resolving to keep an eye on her output from then on. On the first night she was decidedly minimalist and embedded deep within an ensemble; the second night a fearless explorer in a serialist vein. These two albums offer variety, innovation. The Transients project began in 2016 and since that time a series of interlinking trios have appeared, culminating in these extraordinary 2019 albums.
This is music that requires your engagement and it is deeply rewarding when you listen properly. It is clear evidence that Australian music is developing its own distinct voice. The opening track on the first album is titled Musings and it is the perfect hook to draw you deep inside an intriguing world. As the tracks unfold you realise that you are listening kaleidoscopically. Phrases form and change along with mood. It is an interesting approach as the various trios sound like a band that could be playing as a larger ensemble. less is more. It is as if it is a bigger unit but with instruments redacted to achieve greater clarity. In spite of the contrasting moods and instrumental configurations, there is a unified heart; so much so that you can easily imagine how each piece would sound if the alternate trios played the piece. On volume two this is realised. On volume 1 you experience the journey while on volume two you are invited to examine it afresh. Many of the tunes like Saint Misha and Sleep Cycles are later reimagined, familiar but not familiar.
It is hard to praise the Transients albums enough and while it is obviously Keller who deserves the lions share of the accolades, the individual musicians excel themselves under her guidance. Wilson on tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet has long been a favourite of mine. He and the astonishing Stephen Magnusson have previously stunned us when appearing on recordings (notably with Barney McAll). With the addition of James Macaulay on trombone, Sam Anning or Christopher Hale on bass, James McLean or Leigh Fischer on drums and Flora Carbo on Alto, Keller has found the right mix of colours for her masterwork.
Stock: Like This World, Stock was released by Julien Wilson’s Lionshare Records. It is a joyful, freedom embracing, open-hearted exploration of sonic possibilities. It enhances sound, but the electronic effects which it utilises to good advantage are tastefully deployed. This is an album which immediately brings a smile to your lips, exuding as it often does the sounds of a perfect summer (a happier summer than Australia is experiencing at present). It was recorded in 2019 and released by the artists on New Year’s Day 2020. It is the sound of now and I was delighted to hear in the new decade with this gem. Some, wrong-headedly, think that post-millennium Jazz like this has abandoned past learnings; they are mistaken. These artists have no need to look over their shoulder because the past has been absorbed into and informs everything they do as they move the music forward. While Stock is Wilson’s concept it is clearly a collaborative effort. No one creates at this level unless they are inside each other’s heads. The quartet has performed a while but this was a time to share their vision with a wider audience. The tracks cover many moods – here I have posted a joyfully ‘out’ track.
Wilson is noted for his skilful articulation; an artist who can wring new tears out of old ballads and carve scorching pathways through an up-number; one of the few Australasian reeds players who maintains his clarinet chops at this level. This feels like a fruitful direction for him as the step change has a rightness about it. As the album progresses, moving from the filmic to the elegiac, you marvel at the inventiveness. Yes, guitarist Craig Fermanis has a Metheny vibe, but this is an original offering and beholden to no one. He is magnificent throughout and able to create nuance out of controlled chaos, and Christopher Hale’s electric bass work and Hugh Harvey’s drums or percussion are so integrated that the band presents as a single fluid entity. It is the integration of the voices and of ideas within a free-flowing framework that worked for me. It plots an interesting path forward and in doing so brings us along with it.
My last word is about the presentation and the sound quality of the above albums. The recording and mixing standards here are very high. All have eye-grabbing artwork but in the case of the Lionshare albums, the standard is extraordinary. Wilson has an eye for great cover art, intuitively understanding that the relationship between the eye and the ear is important. Music is about more than just sound. I know that he gives careful consideration to such matters, whether it’s the eerily atmospheric work of the Icelandic earth photographer Polly Ambermoon or the marvellous creations of Dale Cox. The albums are all released on Bandcamp. We should all purchase whatever we can through the Bandcamp platform as the artists share is considerably greater there. In addition, we get streaming at Hi-Fi quality and the albums and other merch can be accessed directly. The two Lionshare Albums are also available in 24bit/96kHz audiophile quality and are downloadable for burning. If you have a high-end audio system you should grab the 24bit versions as these are the best quality available to us.
This World: Mike Nock (piano), Hamish Stuart (drums), Julien Wilson (reeds) Jonathan Zwartz (bass). Transients 1&2: Andrea Keller (piano), Julien Wilson (tenor saxophone & clarinet), James Macaulay (trombone), Stephen Magnusson (guitar), Floro Carbo (alto saxophone), Sam Anning (double bass), Christopher Hale (bass guitar), Leigh Fisher (drums), James McLean (drums). Stock: Julien Wilson (reeds, effects), Craig Fermanis (guitar), Christopher Hale (bass guitar), Hugh Harvey (drums & percussion)
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.
Mike Nock is always capable of surprising and this has long been his hallmark. A restless innovator and improviser who never settles on his laurels, Nock is surpassing himself yet again. ‘Hear and Know’ was recorded in 2011 following his aptly named and deeply satisfying ‘Accumulation of Subtleties’ album.
On ‘Hear & Know’ he is again accompanied by brothers Ben Waples (Bass) & James Waples (drums). There is an unmistakable synergy between these three and so adding Karl Laskowski (tenor sax) and Ken Allars (trumpet) had its risks. While there is a different dynamic and altered textural qualities, the magic of intimacy is maintained. It carries over much of the subtle interplay of the earlier album but creates a different range of moods as well.
I was always impressed by the subtle and profound sub-divisions of mood in the ancient Japanese Haiku. The almost untranslatable ‘wabi-sabi’ are the moods invoked when we can almost touch something profound, sense it and appreciate the mood, but know that it will be forever illusive. A further subdivision is ‘yugen’, which is the sense of mystery which underpins profound moments. To define them more accurately is to lose the moment. Mike Nock has achieved this for me compositionally and through his recording. The moods are profound invoking deep and somehow unnamable emotions.
I felt this most strongly on the beautifully named and wonderfully crafted ‘The Sibylline Fragrance’ and later while listening to ‘After Satie’. In the former piece there was an obvious reference to memory and our sense of smell, which is closely aligned with that. Beyond that was something else, a sense of the history of this music. Touching briefly on the past but rooted firmly in the now. When music achieves this it is especially satisfying. I have seen the trio performing and I have seen Ken Allars with the wonderful Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra. Karl Laskowski was not previously known to me. All of these musicians must feel pleased with this album.
‘Kindred’ is the more recent album and one with a pared back line up. Featuring just Mike Nock on piano and drummer Lorenz Pike, this album seems denser in texture and more introspective. Lorenz Pike is an interesting drummer and well-chosen; he is obviously colourist in tendency and that is the only choice for this music. Once again Mike Nock has made a virtue out of contrast. First impressions are often deceptive though and there is a degree of space and subtlety if we listen. The stories unfolding are at times free and open but there is always an underlying thread. The titles also fascinate me as they refer (as with the previous album) to a mixture of things past (references to the classical world), nature untamed and various private worlds. I am a strong believer that improvised music benefits from narratives, not to define, but to augment the journey.
Mike has created subtle narratives out of the whole, which sit in the consciousness like Haiku. There is something special about these two albums and I am certain that only Mike Nock could tell these particular stories.
Creative Jazz Cub & Auckland Jazz Orchestra presents the
JJA Jazz Awards Satellite Party
The 16th Annual Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Awards is an international black tie event held at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York on Wednesday 20th June and features hundreds of musicians, jazz journalists, educators and industry associates.
Auckland musician/saxophonist Roger Manins has been awarded a Jazz Hero Award by JJA, so to celebrate and honour New Zealand’s jazz heroes, Auckland’s Creative Jazz Club (CJC) will be hosting the world’s first 2012 Awards Satellite Party at the Britomart’s Basement Bar also on Wednesday 20th June. The Awards will feature music by the Auckland Jazz Orchestra (AJO) and as New Zealand will be acknowledged at the New York Awards event, willing musicians and Jazz fans should arrive early for photographs – to be posted on the Jazz Journalists Associations Awards official web sites. Don’t miss one of the biggest events on the Jazz calendar!
Wednesday 20 June – Basement Bar, AUCKLAND
Home of the Creative Jazz Club, 1885, Galway St Central, BRITOMART
8pm, Tickets GA $10, CJC members & students $7, student members $5
The Jazz Journalists Association (JJA) honours excellence in jazz music, recordings, presentation and journalism. The 2012 Jazz Awards has 39 categories of excellence including Lifetime Achievement and Best of the Year Awards for musicians, presenters, recordings, photos, journalists, publications, blogs and websites. A star-studded coterie of musicians, journalists and music-world movers and shakers will be honoured in jazz’s only independent, international, culture-and-community-wide awards celebration.
Creative Jazz Club (CJC) was set up two years ago by musicians Carolina Moon, Roger Manins and broadcaster Mark Robinson. Webmaster Ben McNichol and journalist John Fenton complete the team. Now a world-class jazz club, CJC fosters and promotes the development of Auckland’s creative jazz scene by providing musicians with a dedicated performance space, nurturing emerging artists, and the programming of innovative local, national and international talent in its weekly Wednesday club night. Vocalist and composer Carolina Moon – who is currently touring her medieval world music fusion Mother Tongue in-between teaching jazz vocals at the University of Auckland – said “I was motivated to start CJC primarily because there was nowhere for us to play our music, and I thought well there must be other people in the same boat too. When we first opened, one of NZ’s landmark jazz musicians said to me – ‘now I have something to practice for’ – and gee I just wanted to cry. So we started out at Cafe 121, Ponsonby Rd and over that first year we saw the creative scene really start to grow as it provided bands with an outlet for their creative projects – AND an audience which wants to listen and be part of it.”
Roger Manins won the Australian National Jazz Awards for saxophone in 2002 and this month, will receive a JJA Jazz Hero Award as international recognition of his outstanding musicianship and services to the community and education. Roger was born in Waiuku and currently teaches at the University of Auckland between touring nationally and internationally with various groups such as the Roger Manins Trio/Quartet, Hip Flask, Carolina Moon, Resonator, Manins Muller featuring Mike Nock plus a series of Trans-Tasman collaborations. Roger has released 3 CDs – Hip Flask, Trio and Latitude – and is recorded on more than 30 jazz albums with some of Australasia’s leading artists.
“an outstandingly gifted musician with a warmly passionate sound, remarkable instrumental ability and total musical integrity” – Mike Nock
“one of the best newly issued hard bop recordings I’ve heard in quite some time. Manins sounds incredible throughout, but is particularly exceptional on Monk’s Well You Needn’t. Manins et al. aren’t merely recreating—they’re creating new music by taking Hard Bop elements to new places” – Slim’s Spins, Cadence Magazine, USA (March 2012)
The 30th of April 2012 has recently been designated World Jazz Day by UNESCO. This significant recognition of our music is great and we will be celebrating this in Auckland along with the worldwide Jazz Community.
The Jazz Journalists Association is actively celebrating this world event and as part of their programme, members have been asked to nominate a Local Jazz Hero. To follow events go to www.jjajazzawards.org/. Here in Auckland, New Zealand we have nominated Saxophonist, Jazz educator Roger Manins as our first Jazz Hero. Roger is also the programme director and co-founder of the not-for-profit ‘CJC ‘Creative Jazz Club of Aotearoa’ (along with his wife Carolina Moon and friend Ben McNicoll).
Roger has been nominated for a number of reasons. He is certainly one of New Zealand’s (and indeed Australasia’s) best tenor players and as such he is an inspiration to up and coming Jazz Musicians. Of equal importance though is his role as an educator and enabler. Roger lived and worked extensively in Australia for 10 years (he also lived in New York for 2 years), and even though he returned to NZ in 2004 he is still very much in demand across the Tasman, gigging and touring at regular intervals.
Roger teaches at the Auckland University School Of Music Jazz Programme. Anyone who listens to Roger will quickly identify him as a person with killer chops, but he also has the ability to tell a compelling story on his horn.
“He is an outstandingly gifted musician with a warmly passionate sound, remarkable instrumental ability and total musical integrity”. Mike Nock
This story telling in almost any given context draws listeners to him again and again – a skill that was very evident in the likes of Lester Young or Dexter Gordon, but which is not always evident in modern players. Roger can play convincingly in any Jazz genre from free through post bop to mainstream traditional.
Roger is often generous with his time when it comes to nurturing up-and-comers. He will encourage and push those who he thinks need that, while gently insisting that they meet the required standard. With lots of younger players coming out of the two local Jazz Schools, it is essential that they get this real-world feedback in a way that keeps them challenged but not discouraged.
Having a world-class venue is part of this mix and the CJC is just that. Its vision is to stimulate and encourage the development of excellence in the creative improvised / jazz scene, and as programme director, Roger ensures that the diversity of the music scene is represented. The gigs are varied every week and feature prominent ex-pat Kiwis and international artists as well as national and local talents. It is Roger’s connections with the wider scene and the esteem in which musicians hold him that helps to make this happen.
Finally, I want to mention his very Kiwi sense of humour, which is evident both on and off the bandstand. He often slips in sly jokes or asides when introducing acts and his You Tube videos on ‘How to Play Smooth Jazz’ are simply hilarious. These have a cult following in NZ and Australia and the tongue in cheek delivery is so convincing that pupils of smooth jazz sometimes contact him to seek instruction without realising that it is all a delicious joke.
Roger is in demand in both Australia and New Zealand as a tenor player, multi reeds and winds player. He has recorded on many albums as an essential sideman and also as leader. He is married to fellow musician Carolina Moon (Manins) and has a daughter Milli.
I purchased a copy of ‘Seven’ from Rattle Records not long after it was completed. The cover art portrayed black sand, which is strange to those unfamiliar with it. For those who have not encountered it before, black sand can also be surprising. Subtle light-shifts can throw up a myriad of purple and blue hues, and the textures revealed by the drift patterns are in constant flux. ‘Seven’ reflects Tim Hopkins’ music in much the same way.
Tim Hopkins is well-known to those us who have followed the New Zealand Jazz diaspora. He has recorded extensively as a sideman with the likes of Mike Nock (and many others) and he has recorded a significant number of albums as leader. Tim lived in Sydney for many years but he eventually returned to New Zealand where he is now based. He teaches and performs in the capital city. His long experience as a tenor player has taught him to throw caution to the wind. He is adept at developing free-flowing Post Bop lines, but he is not limited by that. While quite capable of playing sweet and low he does not invite complacency, as he can just as suddenly deliver a scalding declamation. His style is to conduct an honest conversation with the audience and few punches are pulled. This is not to say that he is too serious for he has a highly developed sense of humour which he uses to advantage.
Tim started the gig by explaining some of the concepts behind the ‘Seven’ band. “Someone is missing from this band” he said gesturing behind him and I initially thought that he was referring to Richard Nunns (who had appeared on a few tracks of the album). Tim meanwhile continued to explain, “He wasn’t invited, (pausing) it is the bass player”. A bass player is the compass and when a band plays adventurous and complex music the lack of a bass places a heavier burden on the remaining musicians. These guys were fully aware of the job in hand. It is often the case that an experienced leader will develop an uncanny knack for selecting just the right sidemen and this was evident here.
Dixon Nacey is not only a versatile and superb guitarist but he is a musical free spirit. His eyes light up when he is thrown a challenge and he soon throws a challenge back. This guy is one of our finest musicians and the younger guitarists watch his every move. I suspect that a lot of the weight fell to Dixon in this gig, but you wouldn’t have known it to see him smiling as he dared Tim or John to answer his challenges. This was call and response at its best.
The drummer was also perfect for the role. It was the first time that I had seen John Rae on traps and I hope that it will not be the last. He is unlike many of the drummers we see, as his approach is loose and organic. If he wants to up the ante he will suddenly shout at the others; exhorting them to give even more. He is also far from a locked-in drummer as he will punctuate and change the groove at will. I really liked this approach as it was the ideal foil to Tim and Dixon.
I also sensed that the band was unafraid of being overt and about confronting the political realities of our times. This flowed through the music and I loved that about them.
At the beginning of the second set Tim was about to introduce the number when he looked into the audience and said, “Can someone bring a bouncer and throw out that old man talking in the front row”. The talking continued and Tim said in a slightly menacing northern Irish accent, “old man – go home to your wife – go home to your children”. A short silence followed and then “Dad shut up”. The smiling offender was Tony Hopkins his father. Tony is much-loved on the Auckland scene for his skillful drumming. I saw him when I was young and I would like to acknowledge his influence on my generation and beyond.
Another good example of Tim not taking himself too seriously was the introduction to ‘23rd century love song‘. He explained that this was the result of endless navel gazing and that the market he was aiming for was probably chemistry professors.
While aspects of the gig were challenging, the night has left me with a lot to think about. Music should occasionally challenge us and it should make us think. I find myself going back to the album to re-examine a track or a phrase and this is a good thing. The communication is still happening.
The numbers that have stuck with me are ‘Road From Perdition’, ‘All Blacks & Blues’ and the lovely ‘The Sleeping Giants’. for a copy of this go directly to Rattle Records at http://www.rattle.co.nz – failing that try ‘Real Groovy’ ‘JB HiFi’ or ‘Marbecks’.
The Jam: After the gig there was a jam session and it quickly morphed into a mammoth affair. Drummers, saxophonists, guitarists and singers crowded the band stand while fours and honks were traded to the delight of the audience. I don’t think that I could name everyone who played but I will try: Roger Manins(ts), Tim Hopkins(ts), Noel Clayton(g), Aron Ottignon(p), Matt Steele(p) Tyson Smith(g), Dan Kennedy(d), Tony Hopkins(d), Tim ?(d), a young drummer (?), Dixon Nacey(g), Callum Passells(as), Holly Smith(v). Roger played a lovely breathy Ben Webster sounding ‘Sunny Side if The Street’, Holly sung a fabulous bluesy ‘Summertime’ while Tony played just like he always does. Sitting just a fraction behind the beat and in perfect time.
‘Zoo’ is bassist Tom Dennison’s first album as leader and it is a thing of beauty. This is a concept album and such albums focus around a theme. The very best of them stimulate the imaginings as well; leading the listener into subtle dreamscapes that can shift and change endlessly. ‘Zoo’ does that.
Five of the seven tracks are named after animals, but we get no sense that these are the anthropomorphic playthings of humans. The Stingray, Owl, Llama, Cat and Antelope all gain distinct lives of their own; that not withstanding the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The first thing that the purchaser will notice is the exceptional art-work & design (by Caravan + Vivienne Frances Long). While the album can be purchased as a download, it would be a shame to miss out on the 3-fold cover or the best fidelity option. Every part of this album belongs together and perhaps that is its genius.
Once again the Auckland Jazz scene has surpassed itself and with these musicians it is hardly surprising. I know and admire most of the band members and Tom could hardly have picked better. There are a number of firsts as far as I can see and this being Toms debut album, the most obvious one. I have seen Tom Dennison play around town, but the first time I saw him was at an ‘Alan Broadbent‘ concert in the Auckland town hall. When the trio played ‘My Foolish heart‘ I could imagine Scotty La Faro nodding in approval – so perfectly did Tom execute the piece. He also played with pianist Mike Nock and not long after that went to New York to study with Larry Grenadier and the equally renowned Kiwi Bass player Matt Penman. It was after this sabbatical that he returned home to work on the ‘Zoo’ album and the results of his efforts are available for all Jazz lovers to enjoy. With chops and writing skills like this he was never going to disappoint.
I am pleased that the album features the New Zealand born but Sydney based pianist Steven Barry on piano. He is an astonishing musician and to have him recorded this well is pure bliss. While comparisons are often odious I cannot help but place him stylistically somewhere between Steve Kuhn and Brad Mehldau. When he played at the CJC a few months ago he floored us all. Those that knew him nodded with an “I told you so” look – while those who were less familiar became fans for life. This guy can breathe new life into any old warhorse and his own compositions amaze. He is a shaman of the keyboard and a perfect foil for the other players. He demonstrates this time and again as the album unfolds.
We also get to hear him in trio format on the final track. ‘The secret life of Islands‘ is intensely beautiful and it leaves you wanting more. This is the perfect bookend to the album. Introducing a song about an Island rounds off the ‘Zoo’ concept perfectly and gives it another Kiwi reference point. In my view the song could not have been written by anyone other than a Kiwi.
Also appearing is the gifted and much admired guitarist Peter Koopman Jr. Peter is both tasteful and innovative on this album and his long intelligent probing lines mark him out as a born improviser. His maturity as a player is more than evident here. Sadly for us he is to depart for Sydney in a week and that is Australia’s gain.
The veteran of the lineup is Roger Manins and he always pleases. We have come to expect Roger to play like there is no tomorrow and to play what is appropriate to whatever lineup he is in. On this recording he gives us his best and that is most evident on the ballad (track 5). Any song called the ‘The cat’ was always going to work for me and I was especially pleased with this composition. Roger plays this so convincingly that it sounds like a much-loved and familiar tune. That is also due to the skill of the writing.
The drummer Alex Freer is the remaining quintet member. I have not seen him play live, but he is like his band-mates, perfectly suited to the job in hand. I realise now that Alex, Tom, Peter and Steven have played together for a long time, because You Tube clips show them performing in their mid teens.
This album is New Zealand’s own version of ‘Empyrean Isles‘ and like Herbie’s album I am hoping that a ‘part two’ will be recorded someday . Perhaps featuring a rare and secretive pelagic bird like the New Zealand Storm Petrel?. Those particular birds were hidden in plain view and lived a secret life on nearby islands for 100 years. This album has been discovered from the moment of its inception and it will hopefully suffer no such fate.
Once again thanks to Rattle Records’ and to Steve Garden for recording this so beautifully. Order from http://www.rattlejazz.com
It is well-known on the New Zealand Jazz scene that Resonator won this years ‘Jazz Tui’ award. As this is drummer Reuben Bradley’s first album that is no mean feat. The band played at the CJC earlier in the week as part of their Australasian tour and pulled a good audience for the gig.
The band we saw on Wednesday did not have the full complement of band members present on the album, as the pianist Miles Crayford who had played piano, Fender Rhodes & synth had been replaced by guitarist Tyson Smith. Also absent were guest artists Tom Callwood (arco bass), James Illingworth (synth) and Kirsten Te Rito (vocals).
This was a paired down hard-driving unit and they took the high energy, high volume route. The band was: Reuben Bradley (drums, percussion), Mostyn Cole (electric bass), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone) Tyson Smith (guitar). It was also obvious that this was a drummers band because Reuben seemed to direct all aspects of the music; the band taking their cues from the complex rhythms he was laying down. I had heard much about his ascendancy as a drummer and his chops were certainly evident at this gig. He was also an engaging presence as he bantered with the audience. Jazz musicians are capable of delivering knock out one liners, self-deprecating asides and sly insider jokes from the bandstand. I am happy to see that tradition continue at the CJC.
While most of the pieces swiftly morphed into full-on blowing numbers there was one ballad. In situations like this a band could not do better than call on Roger Manins to execute the key lines and he delivered in spades. Reuben introduced the number by saying, ” I had always wanted to write a dark evil sounding ballad because I figured that there was a real market for this”. This number ‘Search in progress’ gave us an insight into the subtler aspects of the band’s repertoire.
Every Kiwi (and offshore) Jazz fan should contact ‘Rattle Records’ http://www.rattlejaz.com and purchase the ‘Resonator’ album. It can also be purchased at ‘Marbecks Records’, ‘Slow Boat Records’ and ‘Parsons Records & Books’ and is available as a download on iTunes. ‘Rattle Records Ltd.’ are to be congratulated for their burgeoning catalogue of top quality NZ Jazz and I urge all Jazz lovers to support this label. It must be pleasing to the band that Mike Nock has praised the group. He saw this album as being ample evidence that “The new generation of New Zealand Jazz musicians have moved up several notches”.
After the gig I sought out Mostyn Cole the bass player to apologise for wrongly naming him as the bassist at the previous weeks gig. I could not find him but the guitarist Tyson Smith said, “It doesn’t matter man because I am credited as being in the band but I was not on the album we are touring to promote and so it all equals out”. That caused me to recall Roger Manins tongue in cheek announcement the previous week. “We believe in truth in advertising tonight and this is one of the rare examples where the people on the album are actually the people performing on the promotional tour, Get a signed copy of the CD now as this may never happen again”. Jazz humour is the best.
Experiencing a Mike Nock band playing in an intimate club setting is quite different from catching his act in a large concert hall. In one sense it doesn’t matter, as this cat can whip up a whirlwind of energy in any space, but seeing Mike in a small intimate club is as cool as it gets. The immediacy of being up-close to a band like this is electrifying.
I had arrived early with a friend, but the club was already at near capacity and there were no available seats. We were happy to stand as no one wanted to miss this night. I leaned against the side of a leather couch crammed full of people while up front Roger adjusted his mouthpiece and Ron positioned his kit. Then we saw Mike and Brett and the lighting was lowered. As the band began to play it was obvious that they would not need any warming up because they were clearly as up for the gig as we were. The opening number ‘Hop Skip & Jump’ was up-tempo and Roger just tore it up from the start. To those who of us who love Mike Nock compositions this music was somehow familiar, but this was also the ‘sound of surprise’.
I am convinced that we could not have seen better in any New York club and in down town Auckland we soaked up the groove feeling lucky to be alive. In the soft lighting you could almost see the sparks of energy flying between the band members and the washes of blissful sound permeated every corner of the room. This was seriously good shit.
Next up was ‘Komodo Dragon‘, a moody number that developed from a beguiling tune into an altogether more profound entity. The placement of chords under Mikes hands is always a revelation as he knows how to mine an idea for deeper and infinitely subtler meanings. His chords were sometimes bluesy, but then he would toss in an oblique voicing as if to bring about a subtle shift in the cosmos he was conjuring. It was like watching an onion being peeled by a master chief.
I was also pleased to see Ron Samson (d) using a mix of mallets, sticks and brushes, as the sound palate that night demanded a more textural approach. Like all good drummers he knew when to blend into the mix, as a loud overly showy drummer would have been out-of-place. Roger Manins (ts) is simply a phenomenon and we are extremely lucky to have him resident in Auckland. He lifted the intensity on ‘Komodo Dragon‘ to such a fever pitch that I actually stopped breathing at some points as the tension was building so much. Roger is the master of tension and release and he can nimbly shift into double time and then some. Brett Hirst (b) has been playing with Mike for years and it shows. He is a terrific bass player and his solos and note placement that night were magical. The band members were all great soloists but what is better they were able to act as a perfect ensemble.
The second number of the second set was a tune called ‘Homage’ and it began with a familiar chord progression (probably based on the changes of ‘All blues’). Where it went next is hard to adequately describe, but this was one of the highlights of the evening for me. Mike developed the theme quickly and as he did so he showed every ounce of his mastery on the key board. He was tossing in fourths while his right hand darted over the keyboard. I was immediately put in mind of the middle movement of ‘A Love Supreme‘. The band was so deep in the groove on this number that the music reached heights beyond the sum of its parts. To hear Roger playing with such strength and in such an ecstatic state was to be reminded of how Coltrane-like he can be. As Roger played, Mike continued to ramp up the groove with his Tyner like chords and an overlay of chromaticism. The band was apiece on this and it was a perfect moment – fresh ecstatic music that paid homage without actually being captured by the past it referenced.
Afterwards I had the chance to speak to Mike about his music and about the scene. Mike is an easy-going cat off the band stand and he comes across as somewhat of a Jazz philosopher. He has also retained a very Kiwi sense of humour which delighted me. As soon as he has made a successful album Mike seems to reach beyond that for the next idea; never one to settle back and rest on his laurels. Already knowing the answer, I asked him if he was still restlessly reaching beyond the now for newer musical ideas, or would he relax a bit? He told me that it was his nature to search for a deeper meaning in the music and that he could not do otherwise. “Some younger musicians than me sound a lot older than I do as they have settled into a safe fixed in time style. That is not where I ever want to be”. I told him how much I enjoyed the ECM ‘Ondas‘ label and he observed wryly , ” yeah man, everyone loves it…. now. Is it even still in print?”. He said that Manfred Eicher often told him how much he loved that album but as was often the case, it was way ahead of its time. We also discussed his writing on the recent ‘Meeting of the waters‘ album which is a favourite of mine. He told me that he felt good about that album but that distribution had been a problem (when was that not the case with Jazz). Mike has hopes of bringing his ‘Accumulation of Subtleties‘ trio here soon and I would urge fans to grab a copy of that double album.
We talked briefly about the Auckland Jazz scene of our youth and he told me how pleased he was that Caroline, Roger ,Ben and Mike were now running the CJC. He also said that he was grooved by the young cats wearing ‘pork pie’ hats, but that when he had gone to buy one had found that his head was too small. “Age will do that” he said. I quickly jumped in with information from a new longitudinal study which showed that humans actually reach their greatest analytical potential between the ages of 62 and 70 years of age. He looked at me dismayed and said, “man you could have extended the time frame by a few years. I am past 70”.
The set list was ‘Hop Skip Jump’, Komodo Dragon’, Gospel Dog’, ‘Joy Remembered’, ‘Transitions’- 2nd set – ‘Afternoon in Paris’, ‘Homage’, ‘Speak to the Golden Child’, ‘Triflin’ Jon’.
For those who are easily led by their particular pied-piper there is live music to be had every week. In the recent past Auckland live Jazz had been harder to find than other genres, but due to a happier alignment of the stars that is no longer a problem.
The big news is that Mike Nock (p) has been booked into the CJC for two nights – August 10th -11th. I never miss a chance to see Mike when is in town and so I grabbed two of the first tickets on the market as they wont last long. Seeing Mike in this warm intimate space will be pure magic. He will be playing with Roger Manins (ts), Brett Hirst (b) Ron Sansom (d). The club is to be congratulated for bringing together such a line up and having such a good piano must have helped to clinch the deal. For details and ticket prices follow the link from this site to the CJC (local clubs). I urge you to become GJC members, visit the club or at least subscribe to the CJC gigs update.
As soon as I learned that the AJO (Auckland Jazz Orchestra) was playing at the Masonic in Devonport I notified a few friends. I would gladly have attended with them having seen this big-band 6 days earlier, but work prevented me. Here is a report from the Masonic gig (and about Merv Thomas):
Subject: Last night; Hi John, We went down to the Masonic last night and lucked in to Merv’s last performance. His 80th birthday is today. He performed in a quintet with Bernie Allen and other ‘old’ friends and sang Tea for Two! A large group of his family were there with several generations. Also a trombone quartet. Happy birthday was sung, and some speeches. I can’t imagine that this was his last blow. A good night. Those kids in the Jazz Orchestra are very talented. Cheers Ruth.
Mike Booth the founder of the AJO has given me some forward dates for the bands gigs. He said: “We will be trying Thursdays [once a month at the Masonic Devonport] – There will be a cover charge and we will try this until the end of the year. Starts Thursday 11 August.”
Lastly I will be going to see the Alex Churchill – Andrea Lisa band on the 3rd of August. Andrea Groenewald (g) is someone to watch. She and Alex Churchill have recently graduated from the Massey School of music (Albany campus).
Mike Nock is one of the best Jazz musicians New Zealand has produced and when he visits; we listen to him and feel proud that he is one of us. Small town New Zealand could never contain him and in a sense nor could America. Departing New Zealand (as a stowaway) in 1958 he was soon to establish himself on the Sydney/Melbourne Jazz scene; but just when his co-lead ‘3-Out Trio’ had achieved success he moved on again. This time he moved to the USA, taking up a Down Beat scholarship at the prestigious Berklee School of Music. He was soon gigging in New York and other cities where he played and recorded with many of the jazz greats like Yusef Lateef. Mike’s stay in the USA was to span 25 years but he seldom stood still and often left good bands just when his tenure was the most secure.
I always felt that Mike was a restless musician outrunning the established grooves of the moment. He would listen to what was going on, in what ever scene he was in and then move it up a notch. This meant that he was often ahead of the record buying market and a good example of this was his ECM album ‘Ondas’. Mike was a perfect fit for ECM, but the ‘Ondas’ album never sold in the numbers it should have. His band mates on that album were Eddie Gomez(bs) and John Christenson(dm). This album fits perfectly into post-2000 ECM offerings, but it was cut in 1981. It is a lovely album and the sense of space and depth tells a very New Zealand story. He eventually returned to the Southern hemisphere, settling in Sydney. Since then Mike Nock has travelled across the ditch at regular intervals and we can say that he is home again. For a full account of Mikes life I highly recommend the Norman Meehan book ‘Serious Fun – the life and music of Mike Nock’. This book is extremely well written, rich in detail and as a bonus it conjures up wonderful snapshots of the Australasian Jazz scene. Mike appears less restless now but his music still pushes hard at the boundaries. This is after all the imperative of jazz, as the music was never meant to stand still.
Improvisation is a high wire act and the bolder the steps the greater the reward when the artist succeeds. Mikes recent album ‘An Accumulation of Subtleties’ is an embodiment of that principle.