SNJO ~ Where Rivers Meet

‘Where Rivers Meet’ is a celebration of adventurous improvised music and it offers us a fresh window into the works of three departed titans (one still among us). The composers examined are Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Dewey Redman and Anthony Braxton, and while the spirit of these extraordinary musicians is evoked, this should not be regarded as a retrospective. What the SNJO have achieved is an in-the-moment exaltation of free spirits. The charts and performances are living breathing entities, rooted in the now. 

This is another waypoint on the open-ended journey that Coleman, Ayler, Redman and Braxton embarked upon. A journey that had no final destination in mind and the SNJO has approached these suites in that same enquiring spirit. Improvised music is at its best when it is not time-locked. 

Were lesser hands involved, it could be risky to combine arranged orchestral music with compositions that are famously organic, but here, it works well. The orchestration is never overdone and it adds contrast and unexpected texture to these vibrant open tunes.  The charts were orchestrated by four arrangers, Tommy Smith, Geoffrey Keezer, Paul Towndrow and Paul Harrison. Each suite is made up of three tunes by the composers and there are four soloing saxophonists involved, each tackling a different suite. 

The SNJO was established by Smith in 1995 and it is regarded as one of the pre-eminent jazz orchestras in Europe. It is also one of the most innovative. No matter what your taste in improvised music, you will find much to enjoy in this album. Ornette Coleman’s “Peace’ is a familiar and much-loved standard and the rendition by Towndrow is fabulous (on alto). The same applies to Dewey Redman’s lovely ‘Joie De Livre’ (Konrad Wiszniewski on tenor), or Ayler’s ‘Going Home’ (Tommy Smith on tenor). 

The meatier out-material is there also, Martin Kershaw is outstanding on the Braxton suite. I love this and ‘Composition 245’ especially. This is pure exaltation and Kershaw is killing. Here the spirit of Braxton shines brightest: minimalism, keening reeds, discordant joyfulness, space, tantalisingly distant vocalisations, swooping descents into quiet. Smiths sensitive, gorgeous rendition of Ayler’s ‘Ghosts’ is in a similar spirit. 

The performance took place in St Giles Cathedral Edinburgh while the gifted Russian expressionist, Maria Rud painted the cover artworks in real time (and in the presence of the orchestra). Spontaneous conversations between open art forms is the new realty and executed perfectly here. While there were no audience members present due to COVID, the artists have somehow magicked us into this hallowed space.

It also is nice to see some younger players alongside the veterans. I have been following James Copus rise with considerable interest. A wonderful player with an abundance of interesting ideas to communicate. 

Anyone who follows JazzLocal32.com will know that I endeavour to keep a focus on local improvised music, or that of Aotearoa in general. In this case, there is a strong local connection between the SNJO, Smith, and Wellington drummer John Rae. Smith and Rae formed their first band in Edinburgh when Rae was 14 and later they recorded together. Between 2000 and 2003, Rae was the SNJO drummer. 

The album was recorded in Edinburgh but it crosses a multitude of borders. Reminding me that local is about more than mere geography. Local can be a community of interest, a connectedness – beyond borders. The degree of separation is minimal in the Jazz world anyhow. Perhaps, Dave Holland put it best when he pled, ‘let’s not over-analyse the nationalist tendencies in Jazz’. No matter where we are from, it’s how well, and how authentically we tell our story. This is truly great music, universal music, full stop.  

To purchase visit the SNJO site or the SNJO Bandcamp page   http://www.snjo.bandcamp.com

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

Mark Lockett Quartet @ CJC

Mark Lockett #1 2015 086Mark Lockett is a New York based drummer who visits Australasia once a year. Each time he returns he brings with him a piece of his adopted city. He is an original  drummer comfortable in diverse situations; a benign but strong presence in any lineup. His artistic approach under-pinned by an easy confidence and this enables him to interact well and to read every nuance. His wide open ears, communicating the pulse and possibilities of the life he lives as a working musician in a big metropolis. There is also a humour he radiates, which peppers his comments and drumming like aromatic seasoning. A Mark Lockett gig is always original and always enjoyable.

It is less than a month since Ornette Coleman’s passing and if ever there was an appropriate night to celebrate his life, this was it. While not an exclusively Ornette Coleman night, his compositions were well represented; every number played had Ornette’s fingerprints on it. The band came together at short notice and as is often the case in improvised music, happenstance served us well. Roger Manins, Callum Passells and Mostyn Cole are no strangers to the freer musical styles. With Locket propelling them they soared. We heard tunes by Coleman, Ellington, Monk, Foster & Lockett.Mark Lockett 2015 087 The music of Ornette Coleman while not without constraints frees the artists from many of the hard-wired rules. It doesn’t sound at all out-of-place now but I can remember the storm that surrounded its arrival. A treat for me was the groups rendition of ‘Congeniality’ from the seminal ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’ album. The controversy surrounding this material is long behind us and every improvising musician has a little of Ornette in them whether they acknowledge it or not.Mark Lockett 2015 088Lockett often forms trios or ensembles that have no chordal instruments. While the musicians played ‘inside’ and ‘out’ they also attempted something we seldom hear in New Zealand. The opening number of the first set was Shiny Stockings (Frank Foster) and they played this in the style of the Mulligan piano-less quartets. Bass, Alto and Tenor in counterpoint and working within the changes. This was nice hear. I have an appetite for more of this.

The band was great and they reacted to each other as if they had been playing as an entity for many years. There was a lot of Charlie Haden in Mostyn Cole’s bass lines and in his warm fat sound. He is an engaging bass player and perfectly fitted for this freer approach. Rogers Manins and Callum Passells are always in lockstep and above all they are open to adventurous explorations. Both are superbly intelligent free-players. Watching Lockett I was again drawn to his precision. I have discussed this with him before and his control of the sticks is especially fascinating. After the gig I teased this theme out further, his hand positions and the intense locomotive propulsion that he generates. At times musical and at times like a freight train rolling over you.Mark Lockett 2015 089“Playing like that (fast and furious) is meat and potatoes in New York”, he said. He was once told that he could get better control if he held his sticks further down than usual. Because of that and because of his melodic approach, he is very interesting to watch. Somehow the sound is cleaner and with musical drumming like this who needs a chordal instrument. I can’t wait until his next visit.

Mark Locket CJC Quartet: Mark Locket (drums, leader), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Mostyn Cole (upright bass).

CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland,  New Zealand, 16th July 2015.

Spoilers of Utopia / Ruckus@CJC

The way that music is interpreted by the human brain is understood up to a point, but there are many mysteries remaining. The topic interests neuroscientists, fans and musicians alike. While pattern recognition is one the of the main hooks drawing us deeper into a piece of music, we also become bored if the pattern remains relentlessly familiar. That doesn’t rule out repeated notes or a vamp as the points of variance are incredibly subtle; groove music or John Cage compositions bear this out. Whether subtle or overt, educated Jazz audiences prefer music that challenges, delights, reveals or amazes.

Good Jazz and improvised music does this despite the few fans who slavishly confine themselves to a single era or style. Live gigs will drag you out of your comfort zone and here’s the thing. Music is a language and we learn by hearing the unfamiliar and comparing it with what we know. Learning language is an innate skill possessed by all humans. As we listen to what we are unsure of, our tastes grow proportionally. These days Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Carla Bley and Zorn have a solid foothold in our consciousness; just as Jackson Pollack makes overwhelming sense when seen on a gallery wall. Jazz listeners should always want more than sonic wallpaper.

In keeping with Roger Manins enlightened approach as program director of the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), he had booked two very interesting groups to play on the 17th October 2012. First up was ‘Ruckus’, a quartet that was anything but run of the mill. The second was the out-brass ensemble (+ four), ‘Spoilers of Utopia’. What we got was joyful, challenging and outrageously humorous music. Music that was fiendishly clever without once resorting to introspective navel gazing.

‘Ruckus’ led by David Ward, a fine guitarist who has assimilated a dozen guitar styles and then stepped free of them. He composed the tunes Ruckus played and they were a metaphor for the inventiveness and vibrancy of the New Zealand Jazz scene. The set list was interesting and the group showed real guts in their interpretations. No one cruised through this material and consequently the collective pulse was quickly amped to a point of high intensity. Some of this material was reminiscent of a Fellini soundtrack, while still managing to evoke real-time global references. It was modern in the best possible way while hinting at its musical origins. I like musical surprises and this music surprised me.

Club goers recognised two well-known locals in ‘Ruckus’, Chris O’Connor (d) and John Bell (vibes). I do not recall seeing the bass player Rui Inaba before but this unit really did come together. Chris and John had double duties this night as they were not only in ‘Ruckus’ but in the ‘Spoilers of Utopia’ as well.

Chris is a drummer that I am very familiar with as his multifaceted approach to traps and percussion makes him a favourite on a number of scenes. He is one of the most talented, open and interesting drummers in New Zealand and it is always fascinating to watch how other drummers flock to hear him. Chris never rushes to fill any void as he understands how complete an implied or missed beat is. He has such a well honed sense of time that he can push at the fabric of reason without losing momentum . He also knows how to remain relaxed at the kit and how to say more with less. The fact that he is one of the nicest cats on the music scene is an added bonus.

John Bell is an extraordinary vibes player and he generally favours the free over the straight ahead. In Ruckus he showed that he is comfortable moving between both worlds. He can swing like ‘Hamp’ then merge that groove seamlessly into an irregular pulse. The one thing that stands out however is his musical courage. John shows an integrity that few vibists do. While a lovely ringing vibrato is what we most often associate with the vibes (early Gary Burton or Bags), the instrument is capable of more besides. He is recapturing the history of the vibraphone while showing us a possible future path. The vibraphone is a percussion instrument and that can easily be forgotten.

The Spoilers of Utopia (also ‘Tparty Spoilers of Utopia’) are a brass heavy ensemble and they are marching resolutely into new territory. While the charts are initially familiar they are never quite what you think. The genius of this music is its kaleidoscopic quality, as it reflects a thousand fractured images while somehow keeping the whole intact. We feel that we can almost grasp the essence; only to find the familiar deconstructed. A pack of travelling Jesters has skilfully woven a new cloth from the old and what was once orderly descends into a pleasant chaos. We follow the twists and turns and just as we fear we are lost…. a disciplined brass band marches out of the haze. This is a new take on tension and release and it really works for me.

The ‘Spoilers of Utopia’ are usually a nonet and as anyone who knows me will verify, I just love a nonet. They are big enough to create to create the illusion of a larger unit but small enough to leave a sense of airiness. To balance out the five brass instruments there was Vibraphonist (John Bell), guitarist (Neil Watson), bass player(Darren Hannah) and drummer (Chris O’Connor). The Brass section were Kingsley Melhuish, Ben Ziber, Finn Scholes, Owen Melhuish, (Don McGlashan absent that night).

I know Finn Scholes having been wowed by his facility on the trumpet (or flugal horn) before. Neil Watson is also a familiar figure at the CJC and I noted how well his solid-body guitar sound fitted the brass dominant ensemble. I liked his contributions enormously and knowing his quirky offbeat take on life and music, it must have been a no-brainer to include him in the mix. There was also a degree of unison playing and with the unusual instrumental configurations, the timbre of the instruments merged to create a richer sound. George Shearing and Tristano grasped this long ago. Having Piano, vibes and/or guitar playing unison lines changed the sound. Putting vibes and guitar with brass was to produce a wonderful contrast. As the ensemble moved from order to chaos and back again I could feel the guiding spirit of John Bell at work: the demented dance instructor shimmering in darkness.

The track that I have selected from the ‘Spoilers of Utopia’ set is so good that I have watched it over and over. The tune is a hymn beloved of the Salvation Army bands, ‘We’re Marching to Zion’ (Sankey). Someone decided on the spot that a drum solo should occur in the middle. As the band proceeded the overall effect of this anarchic but strangely reverential wizardry brought us to our feet? The audience showed wild enthusiasm (and if you peered into the darkness and listened carefully, I swear you could hear Sankey laughing).

This comes from where Jazz began; brass marching bands and random instruments merging to form a new and riskier sound.

Thank you to Jen Sol for providing the video material (as I stupidly forgot my camera bag on that night)