Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Straight ahead

Reuben Bradley ~ Shark Variations

SharkPost Trump’s inauguration, improbability is the new normal and in keeping with the mood of the times Wednesday’s gig emerged from improbable beginnings. It began with an international cat rescue mission, an attempt to thwart a ‘catricidal’ former neighbour. Before the mission had even been concluded a subplot had emerged; one involving the inhabitants of three cities, two countries, and assorted sharks. Those familiar with Reuben Bradley will not be surprised at this turn of events as he’s known for his humour, good nature and above all for his ability to turn improbable adventures into really good music. ‘Shark Varieties’ is a drummer led trio and a vehicle which showcases a bunch of the leader’s original tunes. It also showcases a joyful reunion.

The Shark Variations album was released by Rattle in 2017 and it followed a successful tour by the band a few months earlier. Bradley was in the process of moving to Australia at the time and he was keen to record with longtime collaborators Roger Manins and Bret Hirst. He needed to do this while they were all in the same place and this was his best window of opportunity. Hirst is an expat Kiwi who lives in Sydney, Manins is based in Auckland and Bradley was at that point, about to head for the Gold Coast. Because of their shared history, the musicians knew exactly what they were aiming for; an open-hearted collaborative and spontaneous expression of their art form. That they realised this vision will be apparent to those who listen to the album.

As a leader, Bradley never shies away from an opportunity to leaven his gigs with humour. He tells jokes against himself (the trademark of all good Kiwi humour) and as you peruse his tune titles you find a plethora of throwaway lines and in-jokes. During live gigs, the titles become hilarious stories and his delivery is always pitch-perfect. Improvising musicians frequently tell an audience that the title came after the composition and that they struggled to name tunes. In Bradley’s case, I suspect the reverse is true; that a series of off-beat incidents have stimulated his already vivid imagination and the incidents become the catalysts for his compositions. ‘Wairoa or L.A.’ ‘Wake up call’ Makos and Hammerheads’ are all examples, the latter giving rise to the title, in spite of the fact that he could only name two shark types (which he felt was more than enough). 

Humour aside, this is seriously good music. Bradley is a gifted and popular drummer and musicians love having him alongside. It is therefore not surprising that he would choose these collaborators. Manins is undoubtedly the best known contemporary New Zealand saxophonist and a musician whose formidable abilities are attested well beyond these shores. Hirst left New Zealand many years ago and is regarded as a bass heavyweight on the Australasian scene. He is frequently found performing with Mike Nock and his resume includes playing alongside James Muller, Greg Osby and other notables. 

The reunion gig took place on a cold wet Auckland night and many gladly braved the chill to get a piece of this. I have put up a video from the gig titled ‘Wake up Call’, which Reuben assured the audience had only the thinnest connection to an actual wake up call. In keeping with the ‘spirit’ of the gig, I miscalibrated my camera and the resulting shot turned Bradley and Manins into ghosts. The album is available from Rattle Records. The gig took place at Anthology, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 02 September 2019. 

Footnote: The cats were rescued safely and after an unfortunate travel accident they both found asylum abroad.

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium, USA and Beyond

David Friesen Trio @ CJC

Friesen picGood improvising bass players get a lot of work, but they seldom get the acknowledgement they deserve. This is one of life’s inequities and it’s partly because a bass player by custom is hidden behind the other band members. When a pianist or guitarist plays solo they will often mimic or imply bass lines. A good bass line is both an anchor and an invitation – invoking deeper exploration; the consequent rub between notes and time is where most of the tension and release is hidden. Every so often a bass player claims wide-spread attention. Blanton, Mingus, Haden, McBride, Le Faro, Pastorius etc. David Friesen while not garnering the attention of the aforementioned bassists in the popular press, is without doubt a giant of the instrument. His is a name that frequently comes up when aficionados and musicians talk. He is the bass players bass player, an acknowledged innovator.

The point is best made when looking over his discography – seventy-six albums as leader or co-leader and in excess of a hundred as sideman. The list of luminaries he has recorded with defies belief; everyone from Dexter Gorden to Dizzy Gillespie. For the New Zealand leg of his tour, two of New Zealand’s finest musicians accompanied him. Dixon Nacey on guitar and Reuben Bradley on drums. That particular combination was bound to work well and the proof positive was in the outstanding performances. When artists pay each other respect on the bandstand it is a recipe for excellence. There were no Jazz standards performed and I suspect that many of the compositions were challenging for those new to them. If they were it did not show. Friesen explained that while he loved interpreting standards, he had come to the point where exploring his own compositions was his preference. A musician as gifted as this has plenty to say musically and Friesen found endless ways of expressing his unique world view. Friesen pic (6)As is often the case with great musicians, he was a compelling talker; spinning out yarns of people and places visited. Often with subtle humour woven into the narrative.  Above all he imparted his views on the place of music in these complex and troubled times. To paraphrase slightly, “Music is a way of healing a broken world, it is not just about the people making the music or about the audience receiving it, but something far deeper. The interaction creates a virtuous circle, each continuously enriching the other. Out of this comes the magic”. This reference to the primal healing power of music resonated and he received loud applause. Improvisers seldom earn what they should and yet they persevere. Understanding their mission of deepening human awareness. It was good that he reminded us of how vital a deep listening audience is. Sharing the joy brings its own responsibilities. That’s why I do what I do in print. Friesen pic (7) Friesen travels with a special bass; made for him by a famous Austrian instrument maker. Sick of having instruments damaged or interfered with by airline baggage handlers, he ordered an instrument small enough to go in the overhead locker. This custom bass is mainly crafted out of American Cherry wood and Canadian Maple. It also has a very sophisticated pick up. Because of the foreshortened neck I suspect that it would take some mastering by most upright bass players. In Friesen’s hands it sung.  Friesen pic (9)Nacey did what we expected of him; delivered stinging imaginative lines and soared on that lovely Godin semi hollow-body. As success spreads him thinner, we tend to see less of him in the Jazz club. When we do hear him we get the very best. He is a guitarist who can hold his own anywhere on the scene. The other Kiwi on the gig was Wellington drummer Reuben Bradley and what a performance he put on. Again it was hardly surprising, as Bradley is among our very best drummers. Like Nacey he is often the drummer of choice for visiting artists.

David Friesen (bass, compositions, leader), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Reuben Bradley (drums). The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 4th November 2015

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium, Review, USA and Beyond

Reuben Bradley’s ‘Cthulhu Rising’ @ CJC

Cthulhu Rising 085H P Lovecraft died under appreciated, but it didn’t curb his output. His imaginings took him to darkly strange and exciting places. Places that few of us dared contemplate. While he reached deeper than writers like Edger Alan Poe and further into the human psyche, his wildest dreams could not have prepared him for Wednesday night. Reuben Bradley, time traveller and keeper of lost grooves has wrestled with the spirits and brought Lovecraft to life again.

If anyone was up to this interesting challenge it was Bradley. An original drummer who moves across the kit with balletic fluidity and whose focus and musicality enhances any undertaking. He possesses superb compositional skills and these are fed by a fertile imagination. There is another quality to Bradley and perhaps this is the key. He has a highly developed sense of the absurd. A good humoured irreverence that is never far from the surface. This time his attributes were given full rein and he has excelled himself. Cthulhu Rising 091This is a truly exceptional album and it is no wonder when you consider the source material and the musicians associated with it. Bradley, Penman and Eigsti are a deadly combination and their interplay is crisply on the mark. Matt Penman is dear to our hearts in New Zealand. One of our finest Jazz exports. An expat from Auckland who conquered the American improvised bass scene in ways that few others manage. His work with James Farm, the San Francisco Jazz Collective, Aaron Parks, Kurt Rosenwinkel and a long list of luminaries is instructive. That he still appears with the best of our local artists and on local recordings is our immense good luck. An imaginative and wonderfully musical bass player who holds the groove and manages to tell interesting stories without distracting us from the overall focus of the piece. Few bass players could do this better than Penman.

Last but least is Taylor Eigsti on piano and keys. The New York based Eigsti is also an original stylist. While his name is often associated with the likes of Eric Harland, Joshua Redman, Ambrose Akinmusire, Julian Lage and Gretchen Parlato he deserves evaluating in his own right as leader. For a number of years now the Jazz community has singled him out as an exceptional talent. His back story and youthful entry onto the world Jazz scene is fascinating, but it is his mature output that continually amazes. He is well recorded, well reviewed and getting better with each passing year. At times you can hear influences but they are not the predominant voice. This is a wholly formed original artist and what he brought to Cthulhu Rising was priceless.Cthulhu Rising 094The judicious use of sampled ‘Lovecraft’ readings in several places adds to the atmospheric feel and doesn’t detract from the overall musical experience. Every note played and every voice-over is well placed. Yet again Rattle Records have excelled themselves here. The secret of ‘Rattle Records’ tasteful Jazz catalogue must surely be seeping into the wider world by now. ‘Rattle’ is the ‘ECM’ of the South Pacific. This album was recorded at the ‘Bunker Studios’ in New York, Engineered by Aaron Nevezie and mixed and mastered by Steve Garden at ‘The Garden Shed’ Auckland.Cthulhu Rising 088There was a change of personnel for the CJC ‘Cthulhu Rising’ release gig and for the Australasian tour to follow. Respected bass player Brett Hirst took Penman’s place and this was a sound choice. Hirst, another expat Kiwi, is well established on the Australian scene and frequently employed by visiting artists. He is a gifted musician and perfect for high end gigs like this.

Throughout the New Zealand leg of their tour they were enthusiastically acclaimed and no wonder. The project is well conceived and well realised. In spite of the incredible strengths of his band mates, this is still very much Bradley’s album. We are seeing more drummer led albums lately and the sheer exuberance and depth of this one is proof that the New Zealand improvised music scene just gets better and better.

Cthulhu Rising: Reuben Bradley, Taylor Eigsti, Matt Penman – on tour Brett Hirst – purchase the album from Rattle records or in stores

Live Gig: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand

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CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium

‘Mr M’ @ CJC

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‘Mr M’ is an enigmatic title but the meaning is more straightforward than might be supposed.  The trio members are Miles Crayford, Reuben Bradley and Mostyn Cole; take the first three letters of their forenames and you have ‘Mr M’.  Attempting to challenge our sense of time and place they introduced themselves as a Wellington band with a majority of the musicians based in Auckland.  When they played the CJC last Wednesday these small puzzles were swiftly cast aside.  What we heard was to the point and the quality of the music beyond disputation.  This was my first opportunity to hear a popular trio, one that my Wellington friends had told me about.

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Throughout the night we heard original compositions with all of the band members contributing tunes.  I am increasingly impressed by the writing skills of New Zealand musicians and it tells me a lot about the quality of New Zealand Jazz education.  The quality of their musicianship did not surprise me as I am familiar with each of them.  Anyone who follows the New Zealand Jazz scene will know that they form part of the ensemble on Reuben Bradley’s ‘Resonator’ album ‘(which won the Vodafone Tui’ Jazz Award in 2011).   This is probably the best starting point in evaluating ‘Mr M’.   Anyone who doesn’t have a copy should grab one.  It is still available in most big record stores (and from Rattle).   What ‘Resonator’ established was that these musicians at the core of the recording work well together.   Forming a trio was a logical step.

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Reuben Bradley has regularly been featured at the CJC.  He is not only a highly respected drummer but an important figure on the scene.   He has a vision for the music and communicates that well.  When you hear him for the first time the musicality of his playing strikes you.  His drum chops are immediately evident but there is an extra something that he brings to the kit; an innate sense of time and a magical spark that makes you sit up and pay attention.  All good drummers understand dynamics and know exactly where they should sit in the mix at any given moment. Reuben epitomizes tastefulness in this regard.   He is probably the best known of the three, having regularly performed about New Zealand and further afield.  His most recent Rattle Album ‘Mantis’ is deservedly a finalist in this years Tui’s.   It is one of a very few New Zealand Jazz albums to garner broad attention from the media.  ‘Mantis’ is another must-have album (both ‘Resonator’ and ‘Mantis’ have Roger Manins on them which of itself is enough to recommend them).

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Miles Crayford is from an impressive musical Dynasty.  He is well-known about Wellington as he regularly gigs there.  Apart from a guest appearance with his uncle Jonathan Crayford a few weeks ago, he has not played at the CJC before.  When he plays you know that you are listening to a modern stylist.  There is a certain intensity evident and his voicings are often dark and brooding.  The focus on composition as well as performance gives an added depth to his work.  He has not yet recorded as leader, but his sideman credentials in recordings are very well established.

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Mostyn Cole also appears on a number of top rated local recordings.   Like the others he is a fine composer.  The clip I have included is from a tune of his titled, “I was therefore I am”.  I love the tongue in check reference to Rene Descartes’ maxim.  Incidentally unlike many Australasian composers he names his tunes well (as opposed to ‘first tune’, ‘not yet unnamed’ etc).   He is a strong bass player and his recorded output is best represented on two Rattle albums, Reuben Bradley’s ‘Resonator’, Roger Manins ‘Trio’ and the World Jazz album Carolina Moon’s ‘Mother Tongue’.   He also stood in for Matt Penman during many of the ‘Mantis’ gigs.   His sound is unusually warm and his ability to react to the musical ideas of others instinctive.

This is a trio of equals.

Who: ‘Mr M’ are Miles Crayford (piano), Mostyn Cole (upright bass), Reuben Bradley (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 1885 building Britomart, Auckland, 19th March 2014

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, Post Bop

Reuben Bradley trio @ CJC + Mantis Album

Reuben Mantis

After the success of ‘Mantis’ and ‘Resonator’, Auckland audiences were keen to see a Reuben Bradley band perform again.   Reuben is one of those musical drummers that Wellington seems to specialise in and he clearly has an eye for an epic project.  For ‘Mantis’ he engaged some real heavyweights.  Roger Manins (tenor), Matt Penman (bass), James Illingworth (piano), John Psathas (arrangements) and the New Zealand String Quartet.  The tunes were all Drew Menzies originals, with arrangements by Reuben Bradley and John Psathas.

Mantis is a celebration of the works of Drew Menzies, a highly respected bass player in both the Jazz and Classical spheres and whose compositions had never been recorded before.  What is well communicated during this project is the connection that the musicians have with the material and what also comes across is Reuben’s obvious affection for his departed friend.  Reuben’s liner notes give us a fascinating account how the pieces came back to life, drawing us into a kaleidoscope of quirky lead sheets and a musicians world.  In some cases the tunes re-evolved from embryonic beginnings, coaxed by Reuben’s pen.   I urge everyone to buy the album.  The tunes are fresh but at the same time strangely familiar and this quality anoints them as being timeless, potential local standards.

While no added incentives are needed to purchase ‘Mantis’, it is worth pointing out that the proceeds of the sale go to the Drew Menzies Memorial Scholarship for young New Zealand bass players.  ‘Mantis’ was featured as a key event at the recent Wellington Jazz festival and this week it was a highlight of the Nelson Jazz Festival.  Credit to Creative New Zealand for funding such an important project and to Rattle Records for the album.  It is hardly surprising that musicians of this quality delivered so royally, but a nod to John Psathas and the New Zealand String Quartet is appropriate here.  No matter how experienced a classical string quartet, there is always a challenge when playing Jazz compositions.   The quartet’s unmistakeable chops and John Psathas airy charts took this exactly where it needed to go.

Having Matt Penman aboard was a huge coup.  This expat Kiwi bass player is now one of the real heavyweights of the North American scene.  His work with the San Francisco Jazz Collective, James Farm, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Kenny Werner, Joe Lovano, Fred Hersch, plus his own ground breaking albums, mark him out as one New Zealand’s greatest Jazz exports.  His Bass playing on this album is simply wonderful and no superlatives can do it justice.   Drew would have been extremely pleased.

Reuben won the Tui Best Jazz Album of the Year with his ‘Resonator’ album in 2010.   Roger Manins was also on that album and these two musicians work together whenever possible.  Both of the above albums are adventurous and in their different ways lay down benchmarks for what’s good and original about New Zealand Jazz.

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When Reuben came to the CJC on the 31st July, the working unit was pared back to drums, tenor sax and bass.   On Sax was Roger Manins who has shown time and again that he can give of his best in any configuration.  This sort of trio is wide open for possibilities and the lack of any chordal underpinning leaves the musicians open to risk, but completely free to explore melody and form.  None of the trio were strangers to this format.

I have often watched Roger stepping free of the boundaries, like an anarchic motorist on some long empty highway who has just realised that the normal road rules will not apply there.  I was also delighted to see Roger using his Radio Model, Cigar Cutter Selmer for the first time.  A sleek silvery goddess of bygone years which oozes charm.  In Rogers hands it purrs dangerously like an ancient vixen, brought back to life to seduce us all.

Brett Hirst is a popular Australian bassist and a list his former band mates would read like the who’s who of Aussie Jazz.  He has a big sound and an instinctive rhythmic feel which lent itself perfectly to this gig.  In their usual fashion Australia has claimed him as their own but he is originally from New Zealand like so many artists doing well across the Tasman.

Reuben, Roger and Brett work extremely well together and so it was fitting that they should tackle the work of Drew Menzies from a fresh angle.   While there was a tune or so from ‘Resonator’ in the set list, the bulk of the material played was from ‘Mantis’.  It is Reuben’s hope that these tunes will become mainstays in the Kiwi Jazz repertoire and I hope that this comes to pass.  I have heard at least one rendition of ‘Ladies Man’ played recently at a gig and so the trend may gather steam.

Who: Reuben Bradley Trio – Reuben Bradley (drums) (arrangements), Roger Manins (tenor sax), Brett Hirst (bass).

What: ‘Mantis’ (and ‘Resonator’) both available from Rattle.

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Brittomart 1885 Building downtown Auckland