Australian Musicians, Review, Straight ahead

Eat Your Greens / No Dogs Allowed

The decision to review these two albums together makes sense for a number of reasons. They were both released on the Rattle Label earlier this year and both are quite exceptional. I predict that both albums will be nominated for Jazz Tui’s next year, it’s a no-brainer. Once again, Rattle has served us up a tasty fare. Albums that are beautifully presented and which compare favourably with the best from anywhere.

IMG_0442‘Eat Your Greens’ is an album by to the popular Wellington pianist and educator Anita Schwabe. It was recorded at the UoA Kenneth Myers Centre in Auckland during her recent tour. Her band also performed live before a capacity audience at Auckland’s CJC Creative Jazz Club and it was immediately obvious that they were in great form. Schwabe normally plays with Wellington musicians and regularly with the Roger Fox Big Band. The idea of recording in Auckland was formed while sharing gigs with Roger Manins earlier and it was with his assistance that the Kenneth Myers Centre was made available for recording.

The semi-muted acoustics in the KMC auditorium work well for smaller ensembles and especially when John Kim captures them. Schwabe is a delightful pianist and her swinging feel was elevated to the sublime by the inclusion of Manins on tenor saxophone, Cameron McArthur on upright bass and Ron Samsom on drums. Having such fine musicians working in sync is the first strength of the album; the other strength is the compositions.

The album is a hard swinger in the classic post-bop mould, and in spite of the references to past greats, the musicians insert a down to earth Kiwi quality. The compositions are superb vehicles for momentum and improvisation and the band wastes no opportunity in exploiting those strengths.  In light of the above and unsurprisingly, a track from the album. ‘Spring tide’, won Schwabe an APRA Award for best New Zealand Jazz composition this year. As you play through the tracks you will be grabbed by Manins bravura performance during ‘Anger Management’ or by his sensitive playing on the lovely loping ‘The way the cards Lay’ (Manins is Getz like here); at how beautifully McArthur pushes that little bit harder in order to get the best from his bandmates or how finely tuned Samsom is to the nuances of the pulse (plus a few heart-stopping solos).

It is, however, every bit Schwabe’s album and it is her playing and her compositions that stay with you. I am particularly fond of ‘There once was a Time’ – a fond smile in Bill Evans direction and evocative from start to finish. That such a fine pianist should be so under-recorded is a mystery to me. Thanks to Rattle that may well change. This is an album that Jazz-lovers will play over and over and each time they do they will find something new to delight them.

Anita Schwabe: (piano, compositions), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums). Released on Rattle

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‘No Dogs Allowed’ is the follow-up to the acclaimed 2015 Jazz Tui winning album ‘Dog’. The earlier album set such a high standard that it was hard to contemplate that offering being improved on. This, however, is not a band to rest on their laurels and the restless creative forces driving their upward trajectory have resulted in another album that feels like a winner. This time around there is an Australian in the mix, as they have added the astonishingly gifted Adelaide guitarist James Muller as a guest. It was a brave move to mess with a winning combination and to expand the quartet to a quintet but anyone who has heard Roger Manins play alongside Muller will know that this addition was always going to work to their advantage.

While Muller has chops to burn and manifests a rare tonal clarity, you will never hear him deploy a note or a phrase needlessly. Here you have five master musicians speaking a common language and communicating at the highest level. Although each is a seasoned veteran and bursting with their own ideas, they harness those energies to the collective and the result is immensely satisfying. It must be hard for gifted musicians to set ego aside this way, but these five did just that.

While the album is the perfect example of Jazz as an elevated art form it is never for a moment remote or high brow. As with the 2015 album, the core Dog members shared compositional duties. There are two tunes each from Manins, Field and Holland and three from Samsom. Their contributions are different stylistically but the tracks compliment. Place Manins, Field, Holland and Samsom in a studio and the potion immediately starts to bubble. Add a pinch of Muller and the magical alchemy is complete. When you are confronted with a great bunch of tunes like this and have to pick one it’s hard. In the end, I chose Manins ‘Schwiben Jam’ for its warm embracing groove. The album and particularly this track connects your ears directly to your heart.

The Album is released on Rattle and was recorded in Adelaide at the Wizard Tone Studios.  DOG: Kevin Field (piano and keys), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Olivier Holland (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums) + James Muller (guitar).

 

 

 

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Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Small ensemble, Straight ahead

Steve​ Sherriff Sextet @ Backbeat Bar

Sherriff (1)This project was bound to happen sometime and it was long overdue. On the night of the bands first gig, the pent-up energy that had long been building found a voice. As they kicked off, the room filled with potent energy and the enthusiasm of the band was met in equal parts by the capacity audience. Steve Sherriff is fondly remembered from Alan Browns Blue Train days and he brought with him an interesting group of musicians. Most of them were compatriates from earlier bands and their familiarity with each other musically paid dividends.

On keyboards, was Alan Brown and this was an obvious and very good choice. Brown has a long history with Sherriff and this was evident as they interacted. On trumpet was the veteran Mike Booth; a musician more than capable of navigating complex ensemble situations and delivering strong solos. Ron Samsom was on drums, another well-matched band member, ever urging the band to ever greater heights as he mixed organic grooves with a hard swing feel. Then there was Neil Watson on pedal steel and fender guitars and Jo Shum on electric and acoustic bass. When you put a group of strong soloists and leaders together there is a degree risk, but these musicians worked in perfect lock-step. As in sync as they were, Sherriff was the dominant presence on stage and no one doubted who the leader was.  Sherriff

Sherriff is a fine saxophonist with a compelling tone on each of his horns. On this gig, he alternated between tenor and soprano (though he sometimes plays alto in orchestral lineups). He has an individual sound and it is especially noticeable on tenor ballads and on tunes where he plays soprano. His other strength lies in his compositions. He and Brown contributed all of the numbers for this gig, but in future, other band members will be contributing also.  This was small-ensemble writing of the highest order – tightly focused – melodically and harmonically pleasing. The faster-paced numbers were reminiscent of hard bop – the ballads memorably beautiful. Brown and Sherriff set a high compositional bar.Sherriff (2)

It was Watson though, who took the most risks and the audience just loved it. At times he appeared to be stress testing his Fender as he bent strings and made the guitar wail. At other times he was the straight-ahead guitarist in Kenny Burrell mode – then on a ballad number, he would gently coax his pedal steel guitar and play with such warmth and subtlety that you sighed with pleasure. It had been a while since I’d seen Jo Shum perform and this was a setting where she shone.

Although the band was only formed recently, they will be ready to record sometime in the near future.  The material and the synergy of the band is just too good to squander.

Steve Sherriff (compositions, leader, saxophones), Alan Brown (keyboard, compositions), Mike Booth (trumpet), Neil Watson (pedal steel and Fender guitar), Jo Shum (upright + electric bass), Ron Samsom (drums). The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, Auckland, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, July 25, 2018.

 

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, emerging artists, Guitar

Emerging Artists Hwang & Tomacruz

Hwang (2)Two weeks ago the CJC Creative Jazz Club profiled two more emerging artists; Seungeil Thomas Hwang and Kathleen Tomacruz. Hwang and Tomacruz are both guitarists but with quite different approaches to their craft. Hwang leans heavily toward the fusion and rock end of the spectrum while Tomacruz, although adventurous, sits comfortably inside the tradition. Both underscore the value of the University of Auckland, Jazz programme; a programme which prepares musicians in the best possible way; fitting them for whatever musical path they choose. Hwang (1)

Some, go on to become high-skilled ghosts in the machine of popular music. Others follow their dreams and journey deeper into the sublime and multi-faceted world that is modern improvised music. They arrive on the scene ready to learn from the gig life, but with enough knowledge to make them adventurous. I see them in Indie Rock bands and I see them in the experimental avant-garde ensembles – I see them in audiences listening carefully to Dixen Nacey, Jonathan Crayford, Roger Manins or Jeff Henderson. Long may that quest for lifelong learning and the striving towards excellence continue. I can only hope that the current short-sighted obsession for pruning back the humanities, doesn’t touch the UoA Jazz Course; a programme that enriches us culturally and delivers well.Hwang (3)

Hwang finished his Masters at the UoA Jazz School in 2016 and this is his first gig with his fusion band Finesse. He is a formidable and ‘chopsy’ guitarist who makes fast and furious look easy. His set showcased his various musical interests and in spite of their divergence, he never looked phased at any point. With Crytal Choi, Wil Goodison and Adam Tobeck at his back he had the bases well covered.

During the second set, Tomacruz emerged as a thoughtful and confident performer. Her big personality overshadowing her physically diminutive presence. I have seen her perform in other’s lineups but this was a new and commanding Tomacruz. She engaged with the audience and joked with the band; turning on a well rounded and imaginative performance. Again we saw Choi on keys and the talented Goodison on bass – with the addition of  Lukas Fritsch on Alto and Ron Samsom on drums. Choi is such a delight to hear in these situations; so in-the-moment and adventurous. Keep them coming UoA Jazz course.

Finesse: Seungeil Thomas Hwang (guitar, compositions), Crystal Choi (keyboard), Wil Goodison (bass), Adam Tobeck (drums).

Kathleen Tomacruz Quartet: Tomacruz (guitar, compositions), Crystal Choi (keyboards), Wil Goodison (upright and electric bass), Lukas Fritsch (alto sax), Ron Samsom (drums).

The gig was at the Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club, May 16, 2018.

Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Guitar, Straight ahead

Samsom/Nacey/Haines

SNH (1)This particular group is an uncommon thing on the Auckland scene. A Jazz guitar trio formed by three of our best musicians and each of the musicians in it for the long haul. Samsom/Nacey/Haines have been playing and recording together for a long time and the commitment has remained constant throughout. Their longevity is clearly about musical chemistry, but also about their combined approach to composition. Each band member writes in their own style, but each instinctively understands how the others will react to the chart. This is how mature bands operate; the familiarity enabling the collective to dive into the heart of a composition and extract the best from it. While their original compositions form the bedrock of their output, they also tackle standards; especially when performing live.SNH (2)

Their approach to standards and the arrangement of them is flawless; leading you away from the familiar, while somehow retaining an essence of what you know and how you remember it. This ability to interpret while mixing comfort and risk in equal parts is a gift. It requires a degree of expertise that younger bands seldom possess. Samsom, Nacey and Haines know a thing or two about focusing the attention and on challenging audiences to listen more deeply. They have recorded three acclaimed albums already and a fourth is almost certainly lurking in the wings.

There were a quite few new compositions (some as yet untitled), some familiar tunes from earlier albums and a tasteful assortment of cleverly arranged standards. Three of the standards grabbed my attention: Nica’s Dream (Horace Silver), In Your Own Sweet Way (Dave Brubeck) and Detour Ahead (Herb Ellis/ Johnny Frigo).  I have posted a clip of the Brubeck number as it typifies the adventurous nature of the trio. True improvisers often extract gold from this composition, a case in point being Brubeck himself.  He seldom played it the same way twice and on a 1964 Belgian clip, he exposes the bones while Desmond lays down a new tune entirely (a miraculous example of melodic re-invention captured on film for posterity).

Anyone of the musicians could have introduced these tunes, but the duties fell to Kevin Haines.  His easy-going banter struck just the right note. He was engaging and above all funny. I have often observed how easily this comes to the more seasoned performers. Years of standing at the microphone teach them that a few well-chosen words can enhance any performance – especially a good performance. SNH

Samsom/Nacey/Haines are – Ron Samson (drums, compositions), Dixon Nacey (guitar, compositions), Kevin Haines (upright bass, compositions). The gig was at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, on April 18, 2018.

Concerts - visiting Musicians, Lewis Eadys, New Zealand Jazz Gigs, Piano Jazz

Michal Martyniuk Trio + Jakub Skowronski

Martyniuk (1)When Michal Martyniuk left Auckland for Poland last year, it was hot on the heels of a successful appearance at Java Jazz; the biggest Jazz festival in the world.  It was always on the cards that Martyniuk’s Auckland trio would fare well, as they are the epitome of an inventive, high energy unit and all of that is wrapped up in a very European sound.

While it was obvious to Kiwis and to the enthusiastic Java Jazz festival goers, I wondered how Martyniuk would be received in Europe. I have travelled there often and there are thousands of good Jazz musicians and many fine trios vying for attention. Jazz is valued there, especially in the northeast, and audiences are inclined to be very discriminating. I got my answer shortly after Martyniuk’s arrival, as notifications of media events, club gigs, radio and TV interviews started appearing. He had broken through the clamour and received acclaim in his birthplace. His co-released warm as toast Jazz-soul-funk album ‘After ‘Ours’ and his Jazz gigs, equally acclaimed.  Martyniuk (2)

The journey back to the country of his birth had been important for Martyniuk and he has returned with heightened confidence, exuding a sense that anything is possible. This was evidenced by the trio’s live performance at the Lewis Eady showroom. Many New Zealand improvising bands have a laid back organic feel as that is generally our thing. In contrast, this band is tightly focussed, but without that in any way detracting from its appeal. The tunes by Martyniuk are melodic and often rhythmically complex. This is counterbalanced nicely by Samsom and McArthur who create contrast and interwoven texture. The first set was a mix of old and new tunes. His older tunes like The Awakening and New Beginning, familiar in the same way standards are – always pleasing, always yielding up something fresh. His more recent compositions a mix of burners and ballads. Martyniuk (3)

The Lewis Eady gig was augmented by the addition of visiting Polish saxophonist Jakub Skowronski. Skowronski has a beautiful even tone on tenor and like Samsom and McArthur, he’s the perfect foil for Martyniuk. While he made it all look effortless, his solos took us deep inside the music. These guys were made to play together and I hope they remain a unit. They have a lot more to tell us yet and with any luck, we will get to enjoy the continuing story as it unfolds. Those who wish to be part of this journey can contribute via a recently set up ‘Kickstarter’ campaign following this link. There was some really exciting new material recorded in Poland over the last year and the Kickstarter campaign is about getting that released into the world. No one ever regretted supporting great music like this.

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Michal Martyniuk (piano, compositions, leader), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums, percussion) + Jakub Skowronski (tenor). You can follow this band and order albums from Empire Agency Co. Bands / Michal Martyniuk Trio

 

 

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Small ensemble, Straight ahead

Oli Holland’s Jazz Attack

Oli (1)Oli Holland is one of the leading bass voices in New Zealand. He formed Jazz Attack just over a year ago and since its inception, he has been writing new charts and expanding the lineup. Holland writes interesting charts; often complex but always compelling and his last gig showcased a number of these. This was an expanded lineup – adding three of Auckland’s heavyweights for a quartet segment in the first set. His bass is a powerhouse presence and his ringing melodic lines always distinctive. During solos, his vocalised unison lines fleshed out the tone, drew us deeper in – perhaps even influencing his improvisational choices. It is well established that vocalising while improvising on an instrument, fires up the human brain in new and interesting ways.   Oli

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is predominantly a young band but nicely balanced by two seasoned regulars (Holland as leader and Finn Scholes on trumpet). Adding a segment featuring  Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (keys) and Ron Samson (drums) provided an interesting contrast. When Misha Kourkov joined Manins in the first set we saw this exemplified. After the head, the two tenors each took solos, Kourkov’s was thoughtful with a nice sense of space while Manins dived in and let his long years of experience and no prisoners approach guide him. The two solos worked very well together and it was nice to see a two-tenor spot which avoided the formulaic line-for-line battle formation.

Oli (3)

While the Holland, Manins, Field, Samsom, segments stung with intensity, the core band used the charts to flesh out the compositions. Nick Dow on the piano was interesting in this regard. His solos short but perfectly formed and his often understated comping lightening the density of the ensemble. Michael Howell on guitar also took a thoughtful approach – both chordal instruments providing depth due to their approach. The two main horns were Kourkov and Scholes (foundation members). Kourkov is rapidly maturing into a fine player and I really enjoyed his contribution. Scholes is always interesting and capable of a great variety of expressions. On this night, his solo’s achieved edge and warmth in balance.

As always with Holland, there were a number of funny stories preceding the tunes, improbable seques which hinted at his motivation in naming them but inviting us to fill in the gaps for ourselves. Holland is widely recorded and has recently recorded in Europe with leading musicians. Any gig featuring Holland is well worth attending and this was no exception. Oli (2)

I have posted a clip titled ‘Van Dumb’.  The gig took place at the Thirsty Dog for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) on the 28th February 2018.

 

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Fusion & World, Straight ahead

Manjit Singh / Michael Gianan

Manjit (1)With emerging artists gigs you modify your expectations, but in this case, it was completely unnecessary. Both sets showcased great musicianship and originality.  The first set was Manjit Singh and Takadimi; an Indian music/Jazz fusion project. Manjit Singh is not an emerging artist in the strictest sense, he is a highly experienced tabla player, composer and teacher in the two main traditional schools of Indian music (Northern and Carnatic). He has recently been doing a Jazz studies course at the UoA and this project arises from that. The traditional music he teaches is not that dissimilar to Jazz, as it has improvisation aspects and complex interwoven rhythms at its core. Singh also gave us an insight into another tradition, the ecstatic Sufi-influenced music of northwest India, Pakistan and central Asia – Again, a tradition that has fed the rich streams of Indian music and more recently, Jazz.   Manjit

His first number was a Dhafer Youssef composition ‘Odd Elegy’, to my ears the ultimate expression of Jazz, middle eastern fusion. When Singh opened with a Konnakol to establish the metre, the tune took on a more Indian feel and it worked well. This verbal method of laying down rhythmic patterns at the start of a piece has often been adopted by Jazz musicians; notably John McLoughlin and Tigran Hamasyan. The inclusion of a drum kit added to the complexity of the rhythmic structure, but the two percussionists navigated these potentially perilous waters with aplomb (Singh setting the patterns and Ron Samsom working colour and counter rhythms around that).

The rest of Takadimi were younger musicians, but they handled the charts and the improvisational opportunities well.  With bass player Denholm Orr anchoring them, the two chordal instruments and saxophone (Markus Fritsch) handled the melodic lines; mostly playing in unison, and in keeping with the music style – relying more on melodic interaction than on harmonic complexity.  Michael Howell used his pedals judiciously, winding the reverb and sustain right back, his guitar sounding closer to an Oud. The pianist Nick Dow was a pleasant surprise to me. He had an intuitive feel for this complex music. After ‘Odd Elegy’  we heard an original composition of Singh’s, then a wonderful Trilok Gurtu composition.  This project is worthy of continuance – I hope that the talented Manjit Singh builds on what he has begun here.  

The second set was guitarist Michael Gianan’s first CJC gigs as a leader. Again you’d hardly have known it. He looked comfortable on the bandstand and this confidence manifested in his playing. He had the finest of Auckland musicians backing him and while this can enhance a performance it can also expose a less experienced player. He fitted into the unit perfectly and the band obviously enjoyed playing his material. His set was nicely paced and offered contrast, but he favoured the stronger numbers – those with bite.

Michael G (3)

Gianan is clearly a modernist in his approach, but the history is there also. His compositions providing plenty of ideas for the more experienced musicians to work with. You could see Olivier Hollands enthusiasm as he expanded on the themes and responded to phrases. I am a long time fan of Jazz guitar and I anticipate good things ahead for Gianan. His bandmates: Kevin Field (piano & Rhodes), Olivier Holland (upright bass) and Ron Samsom (drums).
Michael G
Takadimi: Manjit Singh (Tabla, Konnakol), Michael Howell (guitar), Nick Dow (piano),  Marcus Fritsch (saxophone), Denholm Orr (bass), Ron Samsom (drums)
Michael Gianan Quartet: Micael Gianan (guitar), Kevin Field (piano, Rhodes), Olivier Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums).
CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Road, Auckland, New Zealand, 6 December 2017