CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Piano Jazz, Straight ahead

David Berkman – 2019 Auckland

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When David Berkman sits at a piano, any piano, he looks to be at one with the world.  In the parlance of Piano Jazz, the guy is a ‘beast’ and his mastery of the instrument is astonishing. Like all pianists of repute he is accustomed to high-end pianos but when he is confronted with an upright, he still makes it sing.  The last time he visited Auckland, the CJC Jazz club was located in the basement of the 1885 building. At that point, there was a Yamaha Grand on offer. Three moves on from then, the club is now in the ‘Backbeat’, a warm amenable performance space in Karangahape Road. The piano there is a Kawai upright. ‘Uprights are fine’, he said, ‘You just play more percussively’. I’m convinced that he could make a thumb piano sing or swing – and so it was on this night. 

The setlist was a mix of his own tunes and a few well-placed standards. Berkman’s tunes are strong vehicles for improvisation, always melodic and by default, they tend to swing like crazy. With one exception, the standards were Berkman arrangements, and while recognisable they came across as freshly minted masterpieces. Paring the flesh away from ‘All the things’ and giving those old bones a youthful lease on life; finishing wonderfully, gently, with the tag. His Cherokee while closer to the original was also a treat, a real burner. Who dares play that these days (more’s the pity)? Only a killer pianist is who, and contained therein was history, innovation and pure joy. With him were three local musicians who he fondly referred to as his regular New Zealand band. Roger Manins on tenor, Oli Holland on Bass and Ron Samsom on drums.

As I watched him throughout the night, I pondered where he fitted in the stylistic spectrum. Of course, he can range across many styles, but the name Cedar Walton sprang to mind. Later I ran into a musician who said unprompted, ‘This guy and his approach remind me of Cedar Walton’. A musician singled out his comping for high praise. “His comping goes beyond the usual, it is elevated to a high art form. Not just supportive but shepherding you into new territory, bringing out things in your own performance that surprise you”. So all of the above and more applies to him. A drummers pianist, a great comping pianist, a hard swinger. It is therefore not surprising that he shares the bandstand with Brian Blade, Joe Lovano, Billy Hart, Jane Monheit etc. He is also a well-respected educator. Anyone who follows the New York scene will already be a fan as he’s a regular performer around the New York Clubs. For the alert, he can sometimes be caught on the Australian and New Zealand Jazz circuit. If you snooze you lose down-under. Missing gigs like this would be categorised under high crimes and misdemeanors.

He records on Palmetto and his albums are readily available. Recommended is his latest: Old Friends and New Friends – also, Self Portraits or Live at Smoke. For more information go to davidberkman.com. The gig was at Backbeat, CJC Creative Jazz Club, March 2019 – last photograph by Barry Young

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Backbeat Bar, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians

Jay Rodriguez @ Backbeat Auckland

Jay 2019 (1)Anyone who saw Jay Rodriguez play the last time he was in town will have tripped over themselves to catch him again last week. Rodriguez is a talented and engaging improviser and when he steps onto the bandstand he wins hearts from the get-go. This seemingly innate ability arises from a keen understanding of what will work best with a particular audience. He picks ups on and feeds off the energies in the room. He is also a skilled technician, but he is not there to show off his undoubted chops. His purpose is to involve and to engage at the deepest level; offering musicians and audience alike an unforgettable musical experience.    

These days, dozens of talented musicians pour out of the prestigious Jazz schools and as good as they are, they often have a similar approach and sound. Over time the best of them shake this off, but it takes work and road experience to do so. While Rodriguez attended music school, he also gigged from a young age; cutting his musical teeth on the bandstand and learning his craft at the feet of masters (Tito D’Rivera, Phil Woods and Joe Henderson – playing lead alto with Tito Puente at 15 years of age). Those early days shaped his trajectory and enabled him to move effortlessly across the breath of the Jazz world – and later – traversing the wider music scene (Elvis Costello, Prince, Ribot etc).  You gain the impression that every day on the road added a certain something to his sound. He can channel a raw Texas tenor sound in the same gig as he has people swooning over a ballad.  Once this was a commonplace accomplishment, but as the old road warriors pass, we hear this stylistic breadth less and less.

Here I must offer a disclaimer; I was involved in this Auckland gig. Rodriguez had reached out and generously suggested that we could join forces, adding some spoken word into his show. We had a number of exchanges while he was touring with Marc Ribot (the Songs of Resistance project). Various ideas were canvassed – unlike many improvisers, he is experienced in working with poets as he has associated with many including the late lamented Amiri Baraka. From across the time zones, we explored possible rehearsal times and as is often the case, a quick rehearsal just before the gig was the only possible option. When it came to hiring the band, he made another generous suggestion; he was happy to have some younger and freer spirited musicians on board – in fact, he welcomed that. Crystal Choi and Eamon Edmundson Wells joined Ron Samsom as the core group, with special guests Jonathan Crayford and myself appearing on select numbers. 

Rodriguez is proficient on multi-reed and wind instruments and he frequently travels with most of them. This time he arrived with one flute, a soprano, and a tenor saxophone. When rehearsal time came he unpacked dozens of charts and spread them around clock fashion. My favourite author does this, slowly walking among short stories until an order is fixed. So it was with Rodriguez. We had been pre-warned that what was rehearsed would not necessarily be what was played, as he often changed things around as he read an audience (and often mid-tune by way of signals).

The setlist had a few well-chosen standards and of course, tunes from his critically acclaimed ‘Your Sound’ album.  Although he amended the setlist as the gig progressed and extended numbers, fusing the tunes into a heady new amalgam, the performance had a flow that was preternatural. Working with a musician like this and trusting his instincts to guide you forward is exhilarating. I know that the band enjoyed themselves – the gig became bigger than the individual musicians and that how good gigs should work.    

I have posted a longish clip from the gig, one which demonstrates the energies flowing between the musicians. The clip reminded me of the early Alice Coltrane projects. Deeply spiritual and unafraid to move with the vibe. Choi delighted the audience with her wholehearted engagement, moving from minimalist figures to crystalline arpeggios as the moment demanded. Edmundson Wells, like Choi, often appears on the avant-garde scene and was perfect for the gig.  Samsom, the other experienced hand, offered solid support, creating a cushion and a heartbeat. Last, but not least was Crayford, a generous enabler, a mentor to musicians like Choi. He would normally have appeared as the listed keyboardist, as he and Rodriguez have a deep friendship and they collaborate when they can. This time he was heavily engaged in a project of his own and arrived back in town hours before the gig. He waited out the first set, respecting the established line-up, joining the band with keys for the second. This added a whole new dimension to an already great gig – creating the broader palette that Rodriguez thrives on. The capacity audience reacted to every facet of the gig with enthusiasm and Rodriguez return is eagerly anticipated.

In my case, the overall experience was particularly rewarding – a true learning experience – note to self – let my spoken lines breathe more at the start. When you fit words around live music quick decisions are required, Sometimes you have mere seconds to judge the rhythms of an unfamiliar tune. An opportunity like this is rare and precious and I’m glad I took it.

Jay Rodriguez: (tenor & soprano saxophone, flute), Crystal Choi (piano), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums, percussion), – guests Jonathan Crayford (keys), John Fenton (spoken word) – at ‘Backbeat’, CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 27 February, 2019 – Jef Rodriguez recent album ‘Your Sound’ is available on Amazon, through record stores or go to jayrodriguez.com

Groove & Funk, Guitar, Review

‘Shuffle’ Manins/Samsom

RAT-J-1044+ShuffleSometimes an album blows straight into your heart like a warm breeze off the summer ocean. ‘Shuffle’ is exactly that album. There is an easy-going familiarity to it and you instantly feel good as your body connects with the rhythms. Shuffle achieves that rare feat of sounding both new and familiar. This is the sound that I grew to love many years ago, as practitioners like Jimmy Smith, Big John Patton, Gene Ammons, and Brother Jack McDuff fused Soul and Jazz into a rare amalgam. To appreciate this music you need no acclimatisation; no understanding of Jazz. To appreciate this music you only need one prerequisite, a human heart. It’s ‘groove’, it is sensual and it’s my guilty pleasure.

While the album has immediacy, a long story underpins that. Roger Manins, Ron Samsom, and Michel Benebig have played together for many years, and whenever they get together they thrill audiences. At some point, Benebig, the New Caledonian B3 organ master, decided that he wanted to play with the American guitarist Carl Lockett. In B3 circles, Lockett is a legendary figure having played with Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff. The problem was that Lockett had no Facebook presence, no current management, and no listed phone number. Eventually, he was located and agreed to a tour (he has since played with Benebig on a regular basis). During a trip to New Zealand in 2016, the album was cut.

With the exception of two tunes, ‘Blackwell’ (named after drummer Ed Blackwell) and ‘Patton 8’ (named after groove icon Big John Patton), all of the tunes are Shuffles. If you look up Shuffle in a musical dictionary you will see that it has a deceptively complex structure and that it is hard to describe in rhythmic terms (it has an 8 note feel, essentially playing 3/4 over a 4/4 beat to make the music swing). It is sometimes called the ‘flat tire’. My dictionary gives up trying to explain it and simply states, ‘when you hear it you will understand it perfectly’. It has a loping swing and it’s infectious – or as Samsom writes so beautifully in the liner notes, “The Shuffle is the shit for me. It isn’t just flat, it’s broken, and that’s where the music lies. It’s so beautifully wrong’.

The songwriting duties on the album are shared. One tune by Benebig, two by Samsom and five by Manins. The album begins with a slow, smouldering burner by Samsom titled ‘BB gun’ – what a great way to begin an album – this has that Gene Ammons ‘take me home baby’ feel and it sets up the faster-paced numbers to follow. By the time you get to the solos, you are there, in the zone and understanding why Lockett was so essential to the project. What a great composition and how in the pocket every one plays, and then as you progress through the album you realise that every track is a gem.  Manins ‘Shuffle ONE’ (big leg Shuffle), or his ‘Blackwell’ which takes a faster route and gives the soloists a chance to shine while moving at pace. Man, these guys sure can write.  Benebig’s tune is a 12 bar blues ‘Dog Funk Walking’. It made me think of John Mayall at his peak (once upon a time I listened to a lot of John Mayall).  On this track, in particular, you hear the powerful blues credentials of Lockett laid bare. It is impossible to sound more soulful than he and Benebig do on this. The compositions are all great, but so is the playing.

Samsom and Manins have realised something special here and in the process, they’ve showcased real artistry. I have posted two tracks as sound clips – ‘Gout Foot Shuffle’ (Manins) & ‘Dog Funk Walking’ (Benebig). So it’s Christmas and you know what you have to do now. Rush out and buy at least one copy of this stellar album and experience the joy of North & South Pacific musicians playing up a groove storm. Support local music and tell your friends to do the same. You will never have a moments regret owning an album like this. IMG_0462

The album is a thing of beauty thanks to Rattle and the amazing cover designer UnkleFranc. As always I acknowledge the hard work and the deft touch of Rattle’s Steve Garden and ‘Roundhead Studios’ in Auckland. The ‘Shuffle’ Lineup: Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Ron Samsom (drums), Michel Benebig (Hammond A100), Carl Lockett (guitar). You can buy a copy from your local store, Amazon or better yet from rattle.co.nz or online from rattle-records.bandcamp.com

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, vocal

Vivian Sessoms CJC 2018

Vivian (3)When the Soulful vocalist Vivian Sessoms visited in June last year, we were stunned by her voice and by her powerhouse delivery. We seldom get to experience American R & B styled vocalists in New Zealand and if we do we never see them in intimate settings like the Backbeat Bar. Her voice carries the history of her music and her vocal range and control are approaching the operatic. Sessoms is a vocalist with serious chops and an interesting backstory. Last week she returned.

Since her last visit, she has released a Soul/Jazz album titled ‘Life’. The album is receiving favorable attention and it is not surprising that she has been picked up by the Ropeadope recording label. During her two Auckland gigs, she performed a number of tunes from the album; including a few that were recorded at the same time and will likely appear on a future release. The first set opened with her take on the Stevie Wonder classic ‘I can’t help it’. This was pure R & B, but the set swiftly dived into bold reharmonisations of Jazz standards plus one or two pop tunes (‘Love is a losing game’ – Amy Winehouse and ‘Under the Cherry Moon’ – Prince). Vivian (1)

The Standards in that set were the lovely ‘Stella by Starlight’ (Victor Young), ‘Lush Life (Billy Strayhorn) and ‘The Waters of March’ (Tom Jobim). All of the above were reharmonised and made fresh. ‘Lush Life’ conveyed that sad world-weary vibe that Strayhorn penned so well and ‘The Waters of March’ (Aguas de Marco) was sung in English.  Jobim wrote both the Portuguese and the English lyrics and the song is a masterpiece. Sessoms infused it with a subtlety reflecting modern American life. When she came to the line ‘the shot of a gun, in the dead of the night’ you picked that up immediately and understood her message.Vivian (4)

Sessoms is an activist for civil rights and this thread runs through all of her shows (and the ‘Life’ album).  Last time she came to New Zealand it was her ‘I can’t breathe’ number – this time it was her take on ‘People (make the world go round)’, a tune made popular by the Stylistics  (composed by Thom Bell + Linda Creed). Before the tune, she spoke a little of her life growing up in Harlem and how normalised that daily struggle was to African-American people at that time. This tune in her hands was a plea for people to do better and to fight on until equality is a reality, not just a distant hope. An interesting song choice which got the Sessoms treatment was ‘I who have nothing’. We associate it with Shirley Bassey or Joe Cocker but long before that Ben E King released it. Actually, it is an old Italian song titled ‘Uno Dei Tanti’ (by Carlo Denida).

This time Sessoms had her husband Chris Parks touring with her. Parks is a well-known bassist and producer on the New York scene and on the album, he is co-credited in all of the arrangements. Parks played a punchy electric bass, Jonathan Crayford and Ron Samsom were the band members for this gig, Crayford having accompanied her convincingly last time she came.

The album is widely available and I have included a Spotify clip from ‘Life’. Her take on Strange Fruit is the standout for me. A harrowing song based on the poem by Abel Meeropol and made famous by Billie Holiday. In light of recent comments made during the US primaries and on the banners of the Alt-Right, these issues are scandalously still with us. I have also put up a clip from the gig – ‘Waters of March’ (the sound quality is quite good but the glare of the spotlights affected the focus slightly in places).

Life Tour: Vivian Sessoms (vocals), Chris Parks (electric bass), Jonathan Crayford (keys), Ron Samsom (drums) – Backbeat Bar for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 22nd November 2018).

 

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Straight ahead, vocal

Julie’s Gap Year

Julie Mason’s gap year gig came hot on the heels of my returning home from Northern Europe. Unlike Mason (who was in Europe for a year), I was only missing for two months but my fogged brain was telling me otherwise. As I headed for the CJC, using my windscreen wipers as indicators and constantly telling myself that driving on the left-hand side of the road was now acceptable, I congratulated myself. I was back into the rhythms of my normal life. This self-congratulatory phase was all too brief as I soon discovered that I had forgotten to charge the camera and the video batteries. A few hours later an unscheduled power outage occurred, making me wonder if that was caused by an oversight on my part. Luckily, none of the above spoiled an enjoyable gig.

The gig title ‘Julie’s Gap Year’ references two recent and significant events in Mason’s life. Firstly the year she spent in France with her partner Phil Broadhurst during which time she wrote some new material and reworked a few favourites. And secondly, it drew a line under some very tough years health-wise which occurred preceding the Paris sojourn. The latter is thankfully now behind her. At one point during the night, she played a solo piece which referenced her mental health struggles and every one was deeply moved by the honesty and raw beauty of it. Everything she played and spoke about she did with confidence and her skills as a vocalist, composer and pianist were all on display. This was the Mason of old and the audience was delighted.

Her rhythm section was Ron Samsom (drums) and Olivier Holland (bass). Her guests were Phil Broadhurst (piano), Roger Manins (saxophone), Maria O’Flaherty & Linn Lorkin (backing vocals) and for the last number a French accordionist. The night was not without its challenges though, as the power outage could have brought the gig to an abrupt close. Instead under Mason’s guidance, the band morphed seamlessly into an acoustic ensemble and played on in the darkness.  Nothing of the previous mood dissipated during a half hour of darkness and when the club regained partial lighting the programme continued as if the whole thing had been planned.

This was a nice homecoming and In spite of passing through a number of wonderfully exotic places and experiencing interesting music on my travels, it was nice to be back home.

The gig took place at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, 5 November 2018 – a CJC (Creative Jazz Club) event.

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).

 

 

 

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.