O’Connor/Derrick/Johnson

Last Wednesday’s CJC gig brought us a feast of truly adventurous music and it was beautifully executed. It was ‘free’ and ‘experimental’ and although within the improvised music spectrum, it is probable that many in the audience would not have encountered a prepared piano before. At the heart of the trio was the critically acclaimed pianist Hermione Johnson with drummer Chris O’Connor and reeds player Reuben Derrick. Anyone unfamiliar with a ‘prepared piano’ trio performance could not have wished for a better introduction. 

The beauty of experimental music is that you can put away the straight jacket of preconception and bring your imaginings to bear. New and unexpected worlds can be crafted out of the fragmentary detritus of the old. This is surely the ultimate purpose of improvised music. Freeing us from the tyranny of the obvious. 

This performance dove into the heart of sonority; creating sounds not generally associated with the instruments that made them. The piano had been prepared before the audience arrived and I wish that I had seen it. I have been lucky enough to witness this ritual on previous occasions, and ritual it is. There is a concentrated delicacy required in instaling the objects which muffle or extend the range of a piano. It is an installation and the precursor of new music. Items like chopsticks are inserted precisely between adjacent strings or perhaps a metal bowl is positioned. Few if any in New Zealand exceed the artistry of Johnson in this regard. 

Excerpts from concert

And it was not only the piano that reached for new sounds. No one thinks twice when they hear an instrument’s range extended by electronic means, nor should they when this is achieved acoustically. O’Connor, the drummer’s drummer is the most familiar to CJC audiences. He is one of Aotearoa’s best-loved and most adventurous drummers as he sits astride many genres with deceptive ease. During this performance, he added colour via fingers, mallets, sticks, gongs or rims, and no available surface or drum position was left unexplored. And he underscored the deep pulse emanating from the piano, tapping out some passages with surprising delicacy. 

Completing the trio was Christchurch based reeds player Derrick. The last time I saw him perform was in 2013 with his ‘Hound Dogs’. That particular unit performed a Monk heavy set that was well-received as I recall. Since then he has travelled extensively to places like Warsaw, Colombo, Vienna and Ljubljana. He is a noted composer and has collaborated across many cultural traditions. His fluency on the clarinet automatically singles him out, as the instrument is famous for punishing anyone who takes it up half-heartedly. On this gig, he doubled on tenor saxophone and his uncanny ability to locate the acoustic possibilities on both was evident. It’s a pity that he doesn’t live closer, I am up for more of what he has to offer.

Derrick, O’Connor, Johnson

This was music but it was also performance art of the highest order. It stretched us as improvised music should. It was wonderful. The only way that I can begin to do it justice is by abandoning written syntax. Filigree, texture, tropical thunder, raindrops, gamelan orchestra, quasar, delicate motifs, deep pulse, sighs, dance, hot tiles, exquisite, exotic. It reminded me of the first time that I heard Bley/Giuffre/Swallow’s Freefall.  My ears were realigned after that experience.     

Hermione Johnson (prepared grand piano), Chris O’Connor (drums, percussion), Reuben Derrick (clarinet, tenor saxophone). The gig took place at Anthology, for the CJC Jazz Club, 7 July 2021

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Reuben Derrick’s Hound Dogs @ CJC

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Dog bands are a recurring theme in New Zealand jazz.  There was Neil Watson’s ‘Zen Dogs’, ‘Dr Dog’ (Roger Manins, Kevin Field, Oli Holland & Ron Samsom) and now Reuben Derrick’s ‘Hound Dogs’.   To redress any perceived species imbalance, I was glad to see that visiter Mike Stern recently put out an album titled ‘Who Let the Cats Out’.

Reuben has played in Auckland before but I missed that gig.  I was glad that I did not miss this one.   With the exception of Alan Brown, all of the band have either lived in or have some strong connection with Christchurch.   Reuben Derrick is an important part of the Christchurch Jazz scene and with the Christchurch Festival underway very shortly we were lucky to lure him up for the gig.  In hound dog fashion he had tracked down an impressive set list, including several tunes each by Monk, Steve Lacy and Charles Mingus.  The two Monk tunes were ‘Ask me Now’ and ‘Bolivar Blues’.

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Both are familiar to me but it took me a moment to realise what they were.  They breathed new life into these much-loved but less-often-heard tunes and amazingly they made them sound as fresh as paint.  They did so without reharmonising, nor tackling them in an especially angular way (That would be pointless as you can’t out-Monk, Monk).  There were not so many jagged edges but these were great renditions.  Authentic and so accessible that their ‘Bolivar Blues’ has been singing in my head ever since.

Reuben plays an older instrument and the character of that tenor really suits his bluesy-earthy approach.   Some tenor players depart the melody before it is stated but Reuben stands on confident ground.  He is a an intensely melodic player but there is nothing clichéd about his approach.  This is most often seen in the older bop era players, who were able to stay close to the melody but still tell a great story.   Another thing that I liked was the way that his improvisations unfolded with an inner logic.  A logic that allowed you to trace the steps back in your mind.   A journey shared.

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I am not sure whether Alan Brown has played with Reuben before, but he couldn’t have fitted in better.   I have learned over the years that Alan is not only gifted on keys and piano but he is able to adapt to a multitude of styles.   I have not heard him play Monk before but he gave the band exactly what they required.   Solid decisive chord work and inventive solo’s.  He navigated Monk’s choppy lines with the same ease that he tackled the very different compositions of Steve Lacy.  IMG_8231 - Version 2

There were two familiar faces in the lineup, Andy Keegan and Richie Pickard.   Andy has played a number of gigs about town since moving up from Christchurch and he is often at the CJC.  He is a versatile drummer and we saw that demonstrated as he moved effortlessly from colourist to bop drummer during the gig.   I like his time feel and the fact that he lays down a solid beat without drowning out the others.  He plays to the room.   I often tease him by saying that he is a very photographer friendly drummer, as he often leans forward as he gets into a number.

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Ritchie has also played the CJC before and the last time I saw him was with Dixon Nacey.   This is very different material to the high-octane tunes that Dixon was playing and so I saw another side of him in the Hound Dogs.  I found him especially strong on the ballad material like the quirky ‘Ask Me Now’.   The other member of the Hound Dogs is guitarist Sam Taylor and he is not seen in the CJC very often.   That is a pity because his sound is different from many of the Auckland guitarists.  He draws more deeply on traditional Jazz guitar and he does so convincingly.  At times his comping was very reminiscent of Freddy Green’s; a quiet rhythmic strum that pulled back slightly on the beat and gave the number a deep swing feel.  His comping may reference swing but his lines are pure Be bop or Post bop.

These guys may not get together very often but when they do they are a solid unit.  With a great sound like that, I hope that they come and play the club again

Who: Reuben Derrick’s Hound Dogs:  Reuben Derrick (tenor), Alan Brown (piano), Sam Taylor (guitar), Richie Pickard (bass), Andy Keegan (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Brittomart 1885 Building Basement, Auckland 4th September 2013