Now, Where Were we?

Michal Martyniuk reprised.

The last live gig that I attended was just before the level 3 lockdown. That seems like forever ago now, but in truth, it was only in March. Now, in the closing days of June, here I was, strolling down Karangahape Road; the home of indie music and the Creative Jazz Club. Live improvised music was back. 

I can remember every moment of my last pre lockdown gig and I savoured the memories during my period of isolation. As the weeks rolled into months, I managed the interregnum well, but the absence of live music cut deep. I missed its sweet voice in my ear, so music, please never leave me again. 

By a strange coincidence, the last band I heard, the one on that March night, was the Michal Martyniuk Trio. Now, here they were, performing the very first post lockdown gig. As I dashed across K’Road to avoid the rainstorm I wondered if the weather would affect the turnout. The restaurants and the streets were eerily empty, but huddled in the stairwell of Anthology were people shedding raincoats and talking excitedly. Long before the gig started the club had filled to capacity. 

The trio was now a quartet, having added 2020 Tui Award-winning guitarist Dixon Nacey to their number. It turned out to be a match made in heaven. Four highly rated and award-nominated artists merged into one killer unit.

After months of being deprived of live gigs, the musicians were pumped and similar energy flowed from the audience. When expectations are this high, what stretches ahead, is a dangerous high wire act. Also, the piano had been idle for months, lonely and unloved. In truth, the instrument is a difficult beast, but Martyniuk soon found his way to its heart and he coaxed it to sing again. Harnessing unruly forces is the anvil on which good improvisers produce their best work. 

Most of the tunes were Martyniuk’s and although his music is quite different from Nacey’s, the contrast worked nicely. Martyniuk’s post-bop European voicings and memorable melodies were gifted an interesting edge.  Nacey’s tunes, which often feature surprising twists and rhythmic complexity, were turned in fresh directions. Out of contrast comes the best Jazz and this was truly the sound of surprise.  

Michal Martyniuk Quartet: Michal Martyniuk (piano), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ron Samsom (drums). The clip recorded is Martyniuks Polish unit (not the Auckland band as reviewed above)

michalmartyniuk.bandcamp.com  

Jazz On Lockdown ~ Hear it Here ~ Exiles

Michal Martyniuk

At the beginning of the pandemic, it all seemed so far away. As of today 1/3 of the world’s population are in lockdown and New Zealand with them. A busy South Pacific Island was suddenly disconnected from the world; adrift except for an undersea fibre-optic cable. As confusion dominated the interim period, aircraft were grounded without warning and among the travellers unable to proceed was a touring musician; an improvising exile. Now, we are all exiles from our former lives and major cities have fallen silent.

I refer above to the Polish Pianist Michal Martyniuk, here on holiday and about to return to Poland. Luckily, he has family here and a reason to feel safe in New Zealand. With East European travel curtailed, he organised a gig at the only place he could find, a showroom. This was the last gig I attended before the curtain of isolation fell and it is therefore special to me. 

The venue was the Lewis Eady piano showroom with space for only a dozen chairs, the audience encompassed by a circle of Steinways. Beautiful instruments all; dark polished lacquer and keys gleaming like fashion-models teeth. We were all beginners at social distancing and a few random hugs occurred. After greeting friends, I approached Martyniuk to ask about the format. 

 ‘Eadys have provided me with their finest Steinway B and the acoustics here are so good that the piano will not be mic’d. Nor will the bass or drums naturally’. 

Although the floors were marble, the soft curtains and the cavalcade of pianos soaked up any liveliness. I was able to record the entire concert (mostly Martyniuk originals plus three standards). When leaving home I had realised that I had no video equipment ready, so I grabbed a Zoom recorder and a high-end Rhode mic. They sat on a wooden chair a metre away from the piano.

Cameron McArthur and Ron Samsom completed the line-up; both players having a long association with Martyniuk, accompanying him at Java Jazz and on an album. A few days ago I uploaded the material, savoured the experience. I might not experience live music for quite some time to come. This recording may be unmixed but it sounds special to me.

Michal Martyniuk Trio (NZ). Michael Martyniuk (piano), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums). recent album Resonance – michalmartyniuk.bandcamp.com

The lockdowns won’t stop jazz! To assist musicians who’ve had performances cancelled, get their music heard around the globe. There Jazz Journalists Association created a Jazz on Lockdown: Hear it Here community blog. for more, click through to https://news.jazzjournalists.org/catagory/jazz-on-lockdown/ 

Jazz on Lockdown ~ Hear it here series

My normal weekly post has been sitting in my ‘drafts’ folder for over two weeks. Since writing it,  my attention has been focused elsewhere.  Although in isolation, I am not referring to my personal situation but to the J JA ‘Jazz on Lockdown’ project which has rallied Jazz Journalists from every corner of the globe and asked them to respond collectively to the pandemic. My colleagues and I are now working together using an online workspace and our individual blogs may be delayed. Those who are able to have volunteered to join an editing working group as we grapple with the challenges of a fast-moving situation. This is a Jazz Journalists Association project aimed at keeping improvised music current and to get updates to and from countries on lockdown. 

Because of that, Spain first captured our attention. When the virus hit, a popular Jazz musician succumbed and soon every resident was under lockdown. As the virus spread, so did our focus and within days the problem had reached every country. One by one the great Jazz centres like New York closed and the iconic and much-loved Jazz clubs closed with them. When the city that never sleeps locks down, you know that you have urgent work to do. Jazz Journalists are not going to sit around moping; nor will we restrict ourselves to watching another era’s YouTube clips. It is the current musicians who need us the most. We are learning new ways of working and it is our intention to direct you to live gigs or the gigs of working musicians where we can. 

We need Jazz fans and Improvised alternative music fans to keep buying current albums. If there is a live-stream concert with a tip-button give them a few dollars. This is a new version of the pass-the-bucket tradition which goes back to the earliest days of Jazz. Many of the live-streamed concerts will be free, some could be pay-per-view. Buy their music and on Bandcamp or their website if possible. ‘Jazz on Lockdown’ will inform you of the links.  

Barry/Metheny/de Clive-Lowe/Alchemy/Smirnova/Martyniuk

The week before the virus arrived was a week of plenty in Auckland, but the above-named artists did not all appear in the same band. Nor at the same gig. They probably won’t mind if you think that though. Attending Ronnies a few years ago, I caught English pianist Kit Downes at the late show. This followed a sold-out earlier show featuring Kurt Elling. I informed Downes that my write up would begin ‘Elling opens for Downes at Ronnie Scotts’. He liked that. 

Arriving in a rush, as if waiting for the cooler weather came Pat Metheny, Steve Barry, Mark de Clive-Lowe, Alchemy, Callum Passells, Trudy Lyle, Simona Smirnova, and Michael Martyniuk gigs. As always, painful choices were required. 

Steve Barry Trio: Barry left Auckland many years ago; settling in Sydney and returning yearly to perform. Each time he visited there were new directions on offer, highly original material and each iteration offering glimpses of lesser-known composers. His recent albums have taken him into deeper waters still, moving beyond the mainstream. For those of us who like adventurous music, they have been compelling. Two albums were released last year. The first is on Earshift Music and the second on Rattle; both available on Bandcamp.  

‘Blueprints and Vignettes’ trod a path reminiscent of 60’s Bley; boldly striking out for freer territory and edging its way confidently into the classical minimalist spaces. That album was followed by ‘Hatch’ which is an astonishing album of stark pared-back beauty. It is an album pointing to new possibilities in improvised music. This concert felt more exploratory, with denser compositions and jagged Monk-like moments. He played one Monk tune halfway through and this reinforced the connection. 

Mark de Clive-Lowe: It was barely six months ago since de Clive-Lowe passed through Auckland during his ‘Heritage’ album release tour. He attracted capacity audiences then (and now). After years of living away from his home city, he is now reconnected to the Auckland improvised music scene and we hope that he will maintain that link. Having a room like ‘Anthology’ certainly helped, as its capacity is significant. During this tour, he treated us to a wider range of his innovative music; especially his Church Sessions. Showcasing the genre-busting underground gigs that he began in LA and which spread like wildfire throughout the world; giving fresh impetus to the improvised music scene and the endless possibilities looking forward.  

On tour with de Clive-Lowe was the respected LA drummer Brandon Combs. A drummer who can hold down a groove beat while working it every which way; able to interact intuitively with the electronic beats generated by de Clive-Lowe as he dances across the multitude of keyboards and devices. Together with locals Nathan Haines and Marika Hodgson, they created wizardry of the highest order. This artist is the wizard of hybridity and we are happy to remind people that he came from this city. Live re-mix, dance, groove beats, jazz, whatever: it has all been captured, mined for its essence and released for our pleasure.

Alchemy Live: This was the first live performance of the ‘Alchemy’ project. It followed the successful release of the eponymous album which got good airplay and deserves ongoing attention. The concept was the brainchild of producer Mark Casey and its realisation by the musical director and Jazz pianist Kevin Field. The pianist has created some truly fine Jazz charts and the assemblage of musicians he brought into the project brought it home in spades. The tunes have been selected from the New Zealand songbook. Perennially popular and chart-busting classics like ‘Royals’ and ‘Glad I’m not a Kennedy’. Artists as diverse as Herbs, Split Enz and Phil Judd. Because of mounting travel restrictions, several of the artists on the recording were replaced for the live gig. New to us, was Jazz student vocalist Rachel Clarke and she won us over that night.

Pat Metheny: This concert had been long anticipated and it was only the second time that he has appeared in New Zealand. In spite of the looming health scare, the town hall was packed. This was a retrospective of sorts as it featured his best-known tunes. Who would not want to hear a fresh version of Song for Balboa or the joyous ‘Have you Heard’? I loved the concert but two quibbles. I didn’t like the way the piano was miked and mixed except for one number. Gwilym Simcock is a great pianist. It would be nice to hear him in a trio and with an acoustically mic’d up Steinway. The star of the show (Pat aside) was bass player Linda May Han Oh. How stunningly melodic and how sensitive she was in each situation she encountered; solos to die for.

Simona Smirnova: This was Smirnova’s third trip to Auckland. By the time she had arrived in the country, people were becoming cautious about attending crowded gigs. She still attracted a good audience and those who did come were delighted with her show. The setlist was similar to her last year’s show but in the bigger Anthology venue, it sounded stronger. Smirnova interacts extremely well with audiences and they respond in kind. Her beautiful ballads (accompanied on the Lithuanian Kanklas) and her upbeat Slavonic styled scatting were the highlights. Her material is delightfully exotic, being an original blend of Jazz, Lithuanian folk music and beyond. Her voice is simply beautiful and her zither playing beguiling. She was accompanied by Auckland veterans Alan Brown on keys, Cam McArthur on bass and this time, Jono Sawyer on drums & vocals). I have some nice footage which says it best.

Michal Martyniuk: The last gig I attended before isolating myself was the Michal Martyniuk Trio. I did not have video equipment with me but I captured the concert in high-quality audio. I will post on that shortly and will be adding sound clips. You can purchase Michal Martyniuk’s albums at michalmartyniuk.bandcamp.com His ‘Resonance’ album review can be viewed on this site if you enter his name in the search button.

Jazz On Lockdown‘ posts will now move to the principle page and the Jazz on Lockdown page will feature information and links from around the world as the information comes in.

The lockdowns won’t stop jazz! To assist musicians who’ve had performances canceled, get their music heard around the globe. The Jazz Journalists Association created a Jazz on Lockdown: Hear It Here community blog. For more click through to
https://news.jazzjournalists.org/category/jazz-on-lockdown/.

The artists featured were:

Steve Barry (piano), Jacques Emery (bass), Alex Inman Hislop (drums),

Mark de Clive-Lowe (keys), Brandon Combes (drums), Marika Hodgson (bass), Nathan Haines (saxophones).

Marjan Nelson (v) Allana Goldsmith (v) Chelsea Prastiti (v) Lou’ana Whitney (v) Rachel Clarke (v) Kevin Field (piano), Roger Manins (saxophone), Mike Booth (trumpet), Mostyn Cole (bass) Ron Samsom (drums), Stephen Thomas (drums)

Pat Metheny, Gwilym Simcock, Antonio Sanchez, Linda May Han Oh

Simona Smirnova (v, Kanklas) Alan Brown (piano, keys), Cameron McArthur (bass), Jono Sawyer (drums).

Michal Martyniuk (piano), Cameron McArthur (drums), Ron Samsom (drums).

‘Alchemy’ Album Review

Alchemy2 (1)Have you ever heard one of New Zealand’s iconic pop songs and wondered how it would sound reimagined as Jazz? The journey from popular song to Jazz piece is a well-trodden path. Many tunes that we now refer to as ‘Jazz standards’ began their life as tunes written for broadway musicals or for the popular music market. For a tune to successfully cross that divide it needs to be well constructed and to lend itself to reharmonisation. With ‘Alchemy’, this elusive symmetry is realised.

In the late twentieth century, classic Beatles tunes or those of Michael Jackson, Prince and Stevie Wonder were effortlessly adapted as Jazz vehicles. If you hear Uri Caine, Brad Mehldau, Herbie Hancock or the Kiwi Jazz pianist Jonathan Crayford playing ‘Blackbird’ you might conclude that Blackbird was written with a Jazz pianist in mind. These crossovers are a tribute to the composer and to the transformational skills of arranging Jazz Musicians. Alchemy2 (3)

A few years ago the award-winning New Zealand writer/director/producer Mark Casey embarked on an ambitious project to recast a number of New Zealand’s best-loved pop songs as Jazz tunes. It was a significant and perhaps a risky undertaking but gradually the project gathered momentum. In mid-December, ‘Alchemy’ was released and immediately, it rose up the NZ music charts. This is a significant achievement but it is not down to Casey alone. His masterstroke was engaging leading New Zealand Jazz Pianist Kevin Field as the Musical Director. Field is not only a gifted Jazz Pianist and acknowledged Warner recording artist, but his skills as an arranger and vocal accompanist are beyond question. Creative New Zealand came to the party and backed the proposal.

As the project moved forward a variety of Kiwi Jazz musicians were approached, some working in New York, most local, and one by one they came aboard. When the album was about to be recorded, I was asked by Field and Casey if I would be interested in witnessing the recording process. I was. I seldom pass up a chance to become a fly-on-the-wall during recording sessions and this project fascinated me. Being an embedded observer in such situations is always intriguing. It affords a writer the opportunity to gain insights that would otherwise be invisible. As the musicians turned up to rehearsals and to recording day there was a palpable sense of enthusiasm. No one questioned Fields guidance as he tweaked the charts and made suggestions. And any sense of disconnect between the pop and Jazz world evaporated swiftly. This was not pop Jazzed up. It was Jazz, and although there were reharmonisations and Jazz rhythms, the integrity of original tunes remained intact.

In the recording studio were Auckland’s premier Jazz and Soul singers and a selection of experienced Jazz instrumentalists. On vocals were Caitlin Smith, Lou’ana Whitney, Chelsea Prastiti, Allana Goldsmith, Bex Peterson and Marjan Nelson. On piano and keyboards was Keven Field, Roger Manins was on tenor saxophone, Richard Hammond on electric and acoustic bass, Michael Howell on acoustic and electric guitar, Ron Samsom and Stephen Thomas on drums and percussion. In addition, there were two special guests, Michael Booth (trumpet) and Nathan Haines (soprano saxophone). This was serious firepower and thanks to the arrangements, all well deployed. The NY based ex-pat bass player Matt Penman had arranged tracks 7 & 12 and Marjan co-arranged tracks 4 & 8 with Field. Alchemy2

There are six vocalists on the album and they sing two tunes each. Careful thought had obviously been given to who would sing each song because the strengths of the individual vocalists were well matched to the tunes. For example, the warm but wistful lyricism of Chelsea Prastiti paired with ‘I’m glad I’m not a Kennedy’ (Shona Laing), the heartfelt reflectiveness of Caitlin Smith with ‘I hope I never’ (Tim Finn) or the engaging bell-like clarity of Marjan singing ‘Brown girl’ (Aradhna Patel). Together the musicians delivered something unique. This is a project which works and the more you listen to it the more you are beguiled. It is Kiwiana and it could be the perfect soundtrack for your summer.

‘Alchemy’ the album is available in New Zealand stores or from online sources. 

Keith Price ‘Upside Downwards’

coverCanadian Jazz guitarist Keith Price is a welcome addition to the Auckland scene. He brings with him fresh ideas and a musical connection to his hometown. Manitoba is associated with Lenny Breau and Neil Young who both grew up there. Perhaps it’s the proximity to the open spaces which echo in the music, that wide-open sound (and in Young’s case an overlay of dissonant melancholia)? Whatever it is, it certainly produces distinctive musicians. Lenny Breau is an important Jazz guitarist and one who is sadly overlooked, Hearing Price’s respectful acoustic homage on Wednesday, cast my ears in that direction again.  

Before moving to New Zealand, Price recorded a collaborative album in his home state of Winnipeg and that material formed the basis of what we heard last Wednesday. While the album features Canadian musicians, it was released on our premier Kiwi label Rattle. ‘Upside Downwards’ is a terrific album and from the first track, you become aware of how spaciousness informs the compositions, a note placement and phrasing which allows the music to breathe deeply. This feeling of expansiveness is also underscored by a certain delicacy. In the first track especially, you marvel at the touch; the skilfully deployed dynamics grabbing your attention, but it is the artful articulation of Price’s playing that is especially evident. Listening through, it impossible not to feel the presence of the open plains and of Lenny Breau. 

The co-leaders are perfectly attuned to each other throughout; playing as if one entity. There are no ego-driven flights here and in that sense, it reminded me of an ECM album. I had not come across either the pianist or the drummer before but they impressed deeply. From Jeff Presslaff, that delicate touch on the piano and the ability to use a minimalist approach to say a lot. The drummer Graydon Cramer a colourist and musical in the way Paul Motian was.  

Wednesday’s gig was in part an album release, but Price also traversed earlier albums and played a short acoustic set. The album was a trio, but this time he brought four of Auckland’s best to the bandstand. The quintet format worked beautifully and his bandmates were clearly enjoying themselves. These guys always sound good, but it felt like they there were especially onboard for this. In the acoustic set, Price played what looked like a Martin (a Breau and a Young tribute). The other standard was a killing arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s Ju Ju. Why do we not hear that more often?

When setting up my video camera I made the mistake of locating myself near the bar and because of that, there is bleed-through from the air conditioners (the curse of all live recordings). The sightlines are also poor from that end. Never-the-less, I have put up a clip from the first set titled ‘Solstice/Zoom Zoom’. It was worth posting in spite of the defects. I have also posted a sound clip from the album titled ‘6 chords commentary’.  

Album: Keith Price (guitar), Jeff Presslaff (Piano), Gradon Cramer (drums)

Auckland Quintet: Keith Price (guitars), Kevin Field (piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Olivier Holland (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums). Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, K’Road, 09 October 2019. Recoding available at Rattle Bandcamp.

Eve de Castro-Robinson ~ The Gristle of Knuckles

Eve de Castro-Robinson is Associate Professor of Composition at the University of Auckland. She is well known as a New Zealand classical composer and although widely acknowledged in that field, she is strongly associated with the improvising and experimental music community.  Those who attended the CJC Creative Jazz Club last Wednesday witnessed the scope of her compositional output, with compositions interpreted by a plethora of gifted improvisers. The night was a rare treat.  Last year de Castro-Robinson released an album titled ‘Gristle of Knuckles’ and on Wednesday we experienced a live performance. When introducing it she explained, ‘although I am described as a contemporary classical composer, I am best placed at the ‘arts’ end of that spectrum’. In this space genres, overlap and artificial barriers are torn down. Out of these collisions comes original and vibrant music.

While de Castro Robinson is primarily seen as a composer, she is also an enabler and a canny collaborator; expanding her vision through skilled pedagogy. The above project has her engaging with colleagues from the UoA Jazz school plus a handful of gifted musicians from the diaspora of the avant-garde. The project comes close to being conduction; guiding the improvisers with a feather-light touch, letting them find their truth as her works are re-imagined.  The pieces were composed over a period of years, taking us on a journey from the primal to the avant-garde.       

The first set opened with Roger Manins and Ron Samsom playing ‘Doggerel’. A multi-phonic utterance which set the mood. That was followed by a moving ensemble piece featuring Don McGlashan, Kingsley Melhuish, Keith Price, Kevin Field and Ron Samsom titled ‘The Long Dream of Waking’ (a Len Lye poem). That juxtaposition, duo to quintet, worked well, in fact, most of the compositions were quite unlike those preceding them. These contrasts were an integral part of the ebb and flow and the contrasts worked to the advantage of the whole. There was also another factor in play and it was significant. Between numbers, de Castro-Robinson introduced the pieces, not in the usual way but by telling stories. She has a terrific stage presence and while I shouldn’t be surprised by that, I was. Her talk is peppered with wry humour, that understated self-deprecating Kiwi humour. She quickly had us eating out of her hand and although not playing an instrument, was very much a performer herself. 

Everything was interesting, everything engaged. ‘Twitch’ featuring Kristian Larsen, a piece for piano (but kinetic and expansively sonic),  ‘Passion Flower’ played by Kevin Field, a work inspired by a painting and by ‘The March of Women’ composed by the suffragist Ethyl Smyth. The original is a feminist classic but under Fields fingers de Castro-Robinson’s tune it took on a moody reverential feel. Consciously or unconsciously and deep inside the voicings, it captured the mood of another ‘Passionflower’ the Billy Strayhorn masterpiece; a perfect alignment in my view. ConunDRUMS featured Samsom, Melhuish and Larsen, a delightful percussive exploration, a sculpture. ‘Stumbling Trains’ a fiery piece on cello played by Ashley Brown of NZTrio (and co-composed by him). Check out the embed and above all go to the Rattle site and check out Field’s interpretation of ‘Passion Flower’.

 

The second set opened with ‘Countercurrents’ a solo piece played by alto saxophonist Callum Passells. It began in a stairwell and moved among us, resonating beautifully as the figures and melodies filled the room progressively. ‘Small Blue’ had Field, Melhuish, Price and Samsom paired (a Tuba taking up a bass line), ‘Hau’ featured Mere Boynton on voice and crystal and Melhuish on Taonga Puora. This particular piece was a standout. An ancient-to-modern story of the passing of the spirit and told in a way that evokes New Zealand’s pre-colonial past. I defy anyone to listen to this and not experience a shiver run down the spine.  ‘Trouble Trouble Mind’ brought McGlashan back to the stage with Boynton, Price and Samsom. With two guitars a backing vocal and a raw bluesy feel, this was prime McGlashan territory. The vibe here hinted at a Dunedin punk sound. Rattle records Steve Garden also took to the stage with an array of vocal sounds on ‘The Gild’ (we often spot him launching a Rattle album but we forget that he is a drummer. His percussive vocalisations added quirky additions to the interactions between Samsom and Larsen).

On the face of it, the gig was a collection of interesting compositions, but it also felt a lot like theatre. However you describe it, it was great performance art and the audience loved it. The album can be purchased from Rattle at Bandcamp (as hard copies or high-quality downloads). The musicians were; Eve de Castro-Robinson (compositions and narration), Don McGlashan (guitar and voice), Kevin Field (piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Ron Samsom (drums and percussion),  Kingsley Melhuish (conches, tuba, Tango Puora, tenor horn), Kristian Larsen (piano, live sound, gilded cello), Kieth Price (guitar), Mere Boynton (voice, crystal glass), Steve Garden (sounds), Callum Passells (alto saxophone), Ashley Brown (cello).  The gig took place at Anthology, K’Road, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 28 August 2019.

Elsen Price (Aust)

Elsen Price (5)Two bass, two drummer gigs while not unknown usually occur in service of a chordal instrument or of a horn line, and when a solo bass concert occurs, an audience is frequently shown ‘cleverness’. On this occasion, the bass of Elsen Price freed the instrument from the narrow confines of the standard rhythm section or the conventional solo bass repartee; instead, exposing the beautiful resonances and the reach of the instrument. This was sublime music and complete unto itself. It celebrated a gifted musician and a wonderful instrument but without displays of egocentricity. The feat was achieved by inviting us inside the music, and into a sonic cornucopia. We listened and we were captivated.

Life is full of unexpected sonorities and if we believe ourselves to be familiar with them all we are deluded. It is a paradox of modern life that popular music, while prolific, is cursed by formula-driven compositions. On Wednesday, Price and his ensemble teased the new from the familiar. Each instrument adding colour-tones and texture. Hands, fingers, ‘broom’ sticks, standard sticks, mallets, all deployed to good effect. Clicks, taps, scrapes on parchment, rim shots, gongs, bells and balloons under cymbals. And Price leading the way; a conduction answered by each musician and often in unison; acts of collective intuition. 

It is rare to hear Jazz arco bass played so well, it filled the room and swelled, but during the pizzicato passages Price was equally stunning. He is clearly a master technician but this was not about chops. He oversaw the ensemble as a true democrat, giving space and responding to the others. The first set was solo bass. Here Price showed us the breadth of his vision. He employed a looper peddle and would set up a drone or a motif. He would play counterpoint, either arco or plucked, sometimes creating a second loop over the first. He did not rely overly on the live samples, but harnessed them for discrete passages and always under his precise control. 

What we experienced in the second set were energised permanences by Price and his ensemble. Each revealing in their own way what lay deep within the music. That particular set ran a full hour and without interruption. It was a composition for improvisation but with no music on display and as far as I’m aware, no prior rehearsal. Price guided them with gestures or by changing pace. For these types of gigs to work well, the combined energies must feed a room. Music like this leans heavily on interplay, an intuitive reading of cues and deep listening by the musicians. Such high wire acts can easily falter, but this didn’t. That the terrain was navigated so effectively is because the right people were in place on the bandstand. 

Besides Price, on the second bass, was Eamon Edmundson Wells. Although the youngest member of the ensemble he is well versed in playing avant-garde situations. He would be among the first you go to for anything adventurous and he always delivers. On drum kit was Ron Samsom and it was pleasing to have him on this gig. Nothing daunts him and he has few stylistic limitations. He clearly relished the opportunity to play in the ensemble and to interact with another drummer. As he initiated cymbal scrapes, tapped with mallets and scuffed the ‘broom’ sticks the textures richened. This was colourist drumming of the best kind; extending the kit beyond the role of mere timekeeping. On hand drums and percussion was Chris O’Connor; the drummer most often seen in line ups like this. His ability to move seamlessly between genres is legendary; in these situations, he adds inestimable value. With O’Connor you get an ‘Art Ensemble of Chicago’ experience; all the tiny bells and gongs and with each one appearing exactly where it should for best effect.

Gigs like this can sometimes be difficult for audiences, especially those unfamiliar with a freer type of music. In this case, the audience showed enthusiasm, obviously enjoying the experience.

Elsen Price (upright bass, looper), Eamon Edmundson Wells (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums), Chris O’Connor (drums, percussion) @ Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland 14 August 2019

Kushal Talele

Kushal (3)It was four years ago and almost to the day, that Kushal Talele was last at the CJC. Then, as now, he had just returned from a long period overseas. I heard him for the first time then and I was impressed. That was in the cellar of the 1885, a place now a fond but distant memory. A few days ago he returned to the CJC and although he played with a different band, his unmistakeable upwards trajectory was evident. There is nothing unduly flashy about Talele as he radiates calm and absorption. At the microphone, he talks quietly, but there is passion in those subdued tones.  

It is especially evident when he plays, as you are taken directly to melody and it’s heartfelt melody carried on his distinctive sound. There were many influences evident last time, but on this gig one thing was clear. We were now hearing something closer to a modern New York tenor sound; the tonal qualities, the clarity of articulation when in full flow. On ballads, however, there was a hint of vibrato and at the end of phrases, the merest whisper of breath. Taken as a whole package, these stylistic approaches are appealing. 

Talele does not play at high volume, or at least he didn’t on this gig. He stood back from the microphone and this emphasised a number of acoustic subtleties. Small flurries, slight changes in modulation, nothing demanding greater amplification. Playing at lower volume allowed for more interplay and the conversations between instruments were more nuanced. There was however one uptempo number and to everyone’s delight, that channelled a bebop vibe. 

Talele’s compositions were also noteworthy and most of the tunes we heard were originals. In all of those, it was the melodic arc which grabbed your attention. Harmonically, they leaned toward romanticism, but every voicing was in service of the melody. Reinforcing this was his rhythm section, drawn from among the finest that Auckland has to offer; Kevin Field, Olivier Holland and Ron Samsom. Having the piano away from the bandstand is at times a little disconcerting, but Field always makes the best of any situation. He made that white piano sing and because the sound was well mixed, the proximity of the piano was not an issue.

This was an enjoyable gig and I hope that Talele gets to stay a while. New Zealand and Australian saxophonists are gradually developing their own distinct thing. They absorb what they hear elsewhere and bring an antipodean perspective to it. Perhaps a bit of the Chris Potter vibe, so evident in players like Talele will accelerate that process. 

Kushal Talele (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (piano), Olivier Holland (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums). The gig took place at Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland 7 August 2019.   

The Committee (Mat Fieldes)

CommitteeThe original  ‘Jazz Committee’ was formed while bass player Mat Fieldes was still living in New Zealand. Back then he had quite a few fans, and many who remembered him turned out for his recent CJC gig.  Anthology, the new CJC venue, was packed to capacity and that was good news. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since Fieldes left and New York has long been his base. When he arrived in that city 25 years ago he studied at Juilliard. From there he went on to establish a solid career that spans genres and continents. He has played with symphony orchestras, on Broadway and with out-jazz musicians like Ornette Colman. He is a master of fusion and comfortable with Hip Hop. That he is always in demand is a tribute to his abilities as the US music scene is extremely competitive. It is apparent to me, that our New Zealand bass players do very well in hothouse environments (e.g. Fieldes, Hammond, Penman).

It is not often that Fieldes gets back here as he has a busy performance schedule, but this time he was open to doing some local gigs. The vehicle, a collective, was an updated version of the ‘Jazz Committee’ now simply called ‘The Committee’.  In its new incarnation, Fieldes is on upright bass and electric bass, Dixon Nacey on guitar, Roger Manins on tenor and Ron Samsom on drums. The program was fusion heavy or as Fieldes put it, ‘I don’t know if this is Jazz, I’ll let you decide’. Manins clarification muddied the waters further. ‘If you like it then it’s Jazz, and if you don’t, then it’s still Jazz’.

It was a compelling grab you by the collar type of music; it was punchy, improvised and drawing upon many streams; tilting towards an updated but funkier Return to Forever or Electric Miles vibe. Many of the tunes were Fieldes but the others submitted originals as well.  Among them, Samsom’s funk offering, Nacey honouring Scofield and Manins showcasing his wonderful tune, Schwiben Jam (see clip). That tune featured on last years ‘No Dogs Allowed’ album and I am happy to see it in this setlist. Occasionally, I hear a tune that could become a standard or at the very least a local standard. Here it was in a different context and with Nacey and Fieldes steering it into fresh waters. It was immaculate and I hope that I hear it played often (perhaps, with Rhodes fills for additional texture and Nacey as a must-have).  

It’s always interesting when the diaspora of improvising musicians return.  They bring with them the stories of their new home and the influences of those who they’ve played alongside.  It is also instructive to see how they interact with their old bandmates (and some new ones). If last Wednesday is anything to go by, the answer is, very well.  This type of gig is increasingly important in our fast burgeoning scene. We have hit a sweet spot and the audiences are responding. When artists like Fieldes return there is cross-pollination. As a consequence, we are enriched. And just maybe, some of that essence finds its way back into the New York scene.  

Committee: Mat Fieldes (upright & electric bass), Dixon Nacey (guitar),  Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Ron Samsom (drums). The gig was at Anthology, K’Road, Auckland, 19 June 2016

‘Shuffle’ on Tour

Shuffle (6).jpgI reviewed the ‘Shuffle’ album in January and the band is now on the road, sharing its groove throughout the North Island.  As they passed through Auckland I attended the second gig, but this presented me with a problem as a reviewer. When you’ve already done a review, you don’t want traverse ground you’ve covered, and in addition, reaching for superlatives has its limits. During the live performance, the answer presented itself via my friend Stuart.  He and I have had this album playing constantly; in our cars and on our HiFi’s. In my case, I’ve sampled tracks on trains and while waiting in a supermarket queue.  It is that sort of album; addictive to a fault and quickly becoming an indispensable friend in times of need.  Last Wednesday we listened to the first number and as the set progressed, Stuart nudged me and whispered. ‘These are standards to us’ and he was right. 

We knew the head arrangements off by heart in the way you do for Stella or Autumn Leaves; everything internalised and ready for triggering before a single note was played. We knew the track order, we knew the rhythms – the tunes and arrangements. There were no official standards on the album but that was immaterial. The Shuffle tunes are memorable, danceable, filled with melodic hooks, and our minds raced ahead of the lines in anticipation; delighting at each newly improvised line; mentally comparing them to the album forms.

This is what happens with Jazz standards. We love the originals but we never want to hear a band slavishly repeating the material note for note. The crazier the interpretation the better. Performing mental gymnastics during an intro and gasping in delight as a key phrase or line hints at the destination.  That Roger Manins, Ron Samsom, Michel Benebig, Carl Lockett and stand in-guitarist Neil Watson achieved this with an album of originals was remarkable. Naturally, such a singularity is not a lucky accident but the result of good compositional skills and fine musicianship. In a troubled month, we have all needed good-hearted friends to lean on and what better friend than a Shuffle. Lockett is temporarily lost again as he wisely has no engagement with social media. Having Watson step in was inspired, as he brought the core Shufflers a new perspective. Crisp drums, deep organ grooves, stinging blues, and crazy horn lines. Shuffle is a wonderful band and I have no doubt that they will bring pleasure for years to come. An assembly of ’emerging standards’ winging their way across the land and demanding acceptance for what they are.  

The January Shuffle Album review is on this blog site or located at https://jazzlocal32.com/2018/12/18/shuffle-manins-samsom/

Definition of a Jazz Standard: Part of the repertoire of a Jazz musician, compositions widely known, recognised by listeners and played often by Jazz musicians.  Maybe Stu and I are not alone here.  These tunes will be performed often and when others recognise them as we do – they will become standards.

Roger Manins (Tenor saxophone, compositions), Ron Samsom (drums, compositions), Michel Benebig (Hammond Organ, compositions), Neil Watson (guitar) @ Backbeat, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 17 April 2019

Neutrino Funk Experience / Music Soup & the ​healing vibe

Neutrinos (2)March fifteenth began as good days should, with sunshine, a cool breeze off the ocean, and a message from a Jazz Journalist colleague in Australia. ‘Would I like to meet some award-winning Greek Jazz musicians’? I had stuff planned, but the plans were easily shelved and I drove from my leafy hilltop retreat into the city. The musicians had flown into Auckland to join a passing cruise ship and were only in town for eight hours. Ahead of them lay four months of playing standards, original material (if lucky), and the inevitable but often regrettable requests. We met up in a central city cafe. ‘John’, they yelled as I walked around the corner. For the briefest second, I wondered how they had recognised me, ascribing it to a Jazz sixth sense, then remembering my tee shirt was emblazoned with the words Prahu Jazz. We introduced ourselves, and headed for the waterfront at my suggestion, chatting as if we’d known each other for years. That’s the way in the Jazz community. You travel to a place you’ve never been before and someone will message you with the contact details of ‘cats’ to hang with. Such hangs generally follow a well-trodden path. ‘Do you know this or that cat – killing?’ Always followed by outrageous road stories and laughter.     

Evgenia Karlafti is a B3 organist, pianist, and vocalist. Her husband Nester Dimopoulos is a guitarist. They were joined on the cruise by Argentinean bass player Julia Subatin and Mexican drummer Gerardo Lopez. Everyone spoke English which is lucky because I have no Greek or Spanish. After hours of discussing music, the topic took a political turn. Earlier the musicians had made a point of referencing the peaceful laid back Auckland vibe. I recall boasting that our geographical isolation, independent foreign policy, and nuclear-free legislation protected our Island from many of the problems besetting other parts of the world. “We are an independent social democracy very like Norway,” I said, little realising how strong the synergies were. I pointed towards the Pacific ocean at our doorstep, adding, “trouble is inclined to lose its way long before it reaches our shores”. We discussed the Greek political situation and I asked how the Syrian refugee situation had impacted on everyday life. We discussed compassion and the problem of compassion fatigue. We discussed Turkey and the unhelpful belligerence of President Recep Erdogan. Neutrinos (3)

Evgenia and Nestor promised me a physical copy of their latest album titled ‘Cut to the chase’, messaged me a link and we agreed to meet up again when the ship was in port next. After we had parted I grabbed my phone and listened to a track from their album titled ‘Senior Citizen’. Perfect. As I drove home I recall thinking that this was a day among days and then I turned on the car radio. The news spoke of an attack on a Muslim community. I am used to hearing such reports. Tragedies which occur elsewhere – reported on by Christiane Amanpour or Lyse Doucet. In this case, I heard a tearful Kiwi voice. Had one of our foreign correspondents been caught up in a terror attack in London or Paris? The word Christchurch soon dispelled that notion and numbness set in as more facts emerged. A massacre of fifty innocents was happening on our soil and perpetrated by an Australian Neo-Nazi white supremacist. The carnage had started at around the exact time I was boasting about our immunity from such horrors. I don’t remember driving the rest of the way home.

Our amazing Prime Minister set the tone for what followed while we glued ourselves to the TV sets silently grieving. Why here we all asked and the Prime Minister gave us the answer we needed.  For those of you who are watching at home tonight, and questioning how this could have happened here, we, New Zealand, we were not a target because we are a safe harbour for those who hate. We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, or because we are an enclave for extremism. We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of those things. Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion. A home for those who share our values. Refuge for those who need it. And those values will not and cannot be shaken by this attack”. Norway and New Zealand were now linked in more ways than I had ever imagined. 

The next day New Zealand fell silently numb as people watched TV or visited the local mosque with flowers and cards. The Prime Minister’s words “They are us” rang out as we donated millions of dollars to the survivors and their families. Biker gangs offered themselves as bodyguards and our sadness grew as we contemplated the fifty innocents slain in our midst. Powerful images flashed across our screens. Jewish Rabbis, Imams, Anglicans, Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus and Coptic Christians arm in arm outside the Mosques. For the first time, our police carried weapons in public as our terror alert went from low to high. It had never been anything else but low. The unusual spectre of armed police, softened by the policewomen wearing headscarfs and clutching roses to their weapons. An entire nation heard the muezzin call the Adhan when the Islamic prayer rang from our Parliament the next day and from our public broadcast outlets. Surely, one of the most beautiful and evocative pieces of music ever conceived. For a day, following the lead of the Prime Minister, secular and Christian woman donned the hijab out of respect.  

This was an outrage hard to talk about; it was so new to us and so raw. We let the images guide us through our grief and as if urged by an unspoken force, started to debate our colonist past. The evils of racism and wrongs yet to be righted. Some days later I was back in our local Jazz club and the place was packed. There was no mention of the horror but it hung in the air. We had come there to be transported and to heal. Albert Ayler put it well when he said, ‘Music is the healing force of the universe’. On offer was Ron Samsom’s much-loved band ‘The Neutrino Funk Experience’. The band, understanding the vibe went absolutely wild as they sent their crazy danceable tunes heavenward. They turned happy into crazy happy and the barman, moved by it all, turned on the rock-effect strobe lighting. Each funk ridden note healed our bruised souls. We didn’t need overly complex or sad tunes; we just needed this.

Ted Gioia recently tweeted a finding by scientists, indicating that music may possess mass. A day later I read a piece by a prominent scientist reminding us of the absolute interconnectedness of life forms. It is likely then, that music is the glue; music that most ancient of languages. In my world, improvised music is super glue and the balm for all life’s ills.  I have played both the Neutrino Funk Experience album and the Music Soup album endlessly during the last few weeks and with each hearing, my belief in humankind restores.  

Dedicated to the victims of the Christchurch Massacre and to the musicians who heal us.  

With thanks to Rom Samsom, Roger Manins, Grant Winterburn and Cam McArthur of The Neutrino Funk Experience & to Evgenia Karlafti and Nestor Dimopoulos of Music Soup.

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

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

‘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

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).

 

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.

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).

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

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.

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

 

 

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.

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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.

 

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.

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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).
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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

The Neutrino Funk Experience​

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There is no way of calculating the number of subatomic particles routinely passing through a Neutrino Funk Experience, but we can safely quantify the delight on the faces of their audience. There is something about the structure of this unit that inclines them towards extreme risk-taking; the sort of risk-taking that transforms a band into an irregular elemental force. It is rumoured that a ‘play it safe’ memo was issued at their last venue, but the band either mislaid it or opted for willful disobedience. The only reasonable explanation for this hyper-energised, off the grid performance, is to blame it on passing Neutrinos. The band kicks arse with hobnail boots.

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The NFE were once upstairs regulars at the Albion and later they became CJC favourites. This year has been quieter for them gig wise, but the group’s energy levels have continued to rise during their hiatus. From the first note on Wednesday they nailed it to the floor. Swooping on our unprepared sensibilities and taking complete control of the room. It is hard to say who creates the most sparks as they continually feed off each other’s energy. Roger Manins is always a towering presence on the bandstand; his ad-lib asides and gestures acting as prequels to his wild solos. Eyes always follow him as he moves about the stage, but this time he had competition; the über kinetic actions of Grant Winterburn – vying with him gesture by gesture for visual and sonic supremacy.

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Ron Samsom and Cam McArthur were located behind Manins and Winterburn. In spite of being partially obscured and located in the darker recesses, you’d have thought they were playing in the chair beside you. While the band is loud, it is not unduly so; it is something else that projects them. The sound is in front, behind, inside, outside – neutrino laden energy, everywhere and nowhere – passing through the observers and imperceptibly, transforming them in a quantum fashion.

In the Bimhuis in Amsterdam, I saw Han Bennink put his boots on the kit during a drum solo. Samsom prefers his upper body and especially his elbows. Manins has some leg action. Winterburn, however, took the Bennink route and added a few wrinkles of his own. He sat on the keys, he walked on the keys and he shook his Nord until it cried out for mercy; and all of the while Samsom locked down a groove beat so tight that it became dark matter. This group not only understand group dynamics but they know how far they can go while taking the audience with them.

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Towards the end of the first set, I was handed the microphone, reading one of my poems while they played softly beneath me, accenting keywords, moving where I did.  I was so delighted at performing with this band that I forgot to press the record button – such is life.  It takes real skill for a band to take risks while staying within a groove framework. I hope they keep doing what they do and perhaps they will record again soon? Their earlier album ‘Ace Tone’ is still available at Rattle Records so grab a copy for Christmas before the stock disappears. Dancing dementedly around the Christmas tree would not be the same without it.

The Neutrina Funk Experience: Ron Samsom (drums), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Grant Winterburn (organ), Cameron McArthur (upright bass). CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Thirsty Dog, Wednesday 22nd November 2017.

Richard Hammond (NY)

 

New Zealand is an incubator of creative spirits and many of the best are hidden in plain sight. They deserve better attention but we fail to notice them because the soulless dazzle of consumerism obscures our sight lines. Last week Richard Hammond, an important New York bass player flew into Auckland and a lucky few got to hear him play live. Hammond is a legend in music circles, but many who are familiar with his work don’t realise that he is an ex-pat New Zealander; raised in the North Kaipara region and establishing himself on the New Zealand music scene while still at high school. Later he won a scholarship to attend the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston. After moving to New York he studied at the Manhattan School of Music where he completed a Masters. Hammond has toured with many significant artists; he gigs regularly in New York clubs, works in Broadway shows and is a first call bass player in the recording studios. 

When I learned that he would be recording in Auckland, I made sure that I had an invitation to the recording session. My head was still spinning after a crazy two weeks in Australia, but I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to hear him play. The recording session took place at the UoA School of Music in Shortland Street, where Maggie Gould was laying down a few cuts for an album. On this session, Hammond played upright bass, extracting a beautifully rounded tone from a ‘seen better days’ borrowed instrument; living proof that good musicians sound good on any old instrument. Recording sessions are not concerts, but they are never the less fascinating places for those beguiled by the process of music making. What strikes me on a good recording session is the heightened collaborative element; the way an artist gives without invading another’s space, and all of this in slow motion as they mull over playbacks. I positioned myself behind Hammond (who was well baffled) and I watched, listened and photographed between takes. Photography in a studio or a rehearsal is generally easier than at a gig. 

The CJC, sensing an opportunity and knowing that they had only a few days, organised a special one-off Richard Hammond gig and billed it as an all-star event. The programming fell to keys player Kevin Field. Field playing Rhodes, Ron Samsom on drums, Nathan Haines and Roger Manins on saxophones and Marjan on vocals. Hammond alternated between upright bass and electric bass and he wowed us on both instruments. On upright bass, he has a tone to die for; one that only the best bass players locate; on electric bass his lines bite, speaking the language of Jaco or Richard Bona.

The tunes were mostly Field’s and Haines, but it was also a pleasure to hear Marjan’s evocative Desert Remains performed again. Every time she sings her vocal and compositional strengths astound listeners. She gains fans every time she steps up to the microphone. The gig was held at the Backbeat Bar in K’Rd, the venue packed to capacity. The musicians were all in excellent form; clearly feeding on the shouts of encouragement from an enthusiastic audience. First up was Haines, who goes back with Hammond at least 20 years – Hammond appearing on Haines first album ‘Shift Left’. You could sense the old chemistry being rekindled as they played. I also enjoyed Manins playing, especially on one of the Field tunes. Perhaps because they hit their stride so early, and made it look such fun, it was the trio of Hammond, Field and Samsom that will stick in my mind. These cats talk music in the dialect of joy. In this troubled world, we need a lot of that.

Richard Hammond: (upright and electric bass)

The All Stars: Kevin Field (Fender Rhodes), Nathan Haines (Tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Marjan (vocals), Ron Samsom (drums). Backbeat Bar, K’Road, Auckland Central, 21 November 2017

Nanny Assis & Maggie Gould

Nanny Assis Maggie Gould (4)I like South American music and the more I hear, the deeper I am drawn in. A rich and ancient fusion of African, European and Amerindian music, each coast and region nurturing distinct flavours. There are also highly localised variations; all rhythmically complex and all deeply infectious. This week the CJC featured the highly respected Brazilian musician Nanny Assis and New Zealand born vocalist Maggie Gould. Assis was born in Salvador, North Eastern Brazil; a region especially rich in musical traditions and heavily influenced by African rhythms.  The coast below Bahia nurtured Tom Jobim, Roberto Menescal and a cohort of like-minded innovators; the creators of the Bossanova (new music) form. In a world where saccharine versions of great music often assail us, it is necessary to return to the source from time to time in order to refresh our ears. Listening to Tom Jobim and Elis Regina on the album ‘Elis & Tom’ – ‘Chovendo Na Roseira’ especially, is a good place to start. The time feel is subtly different from North American versions and the unique rhythmic tensions dance with life. Jobim is long gone but authentic practitioners of the various traditions are still there if we look. Assis is just one of these; a master of rhythm and of the many distinct Bahia styles.Nanny Assis Maggie Gould (6)Gould was a successful photojournalist in an earlier life. When the pressures of that lifestyle became too much, she decided to abandon the frenetic media world and follow her passion instead. Rekindling a youthful dream she became a Jazz vocalist and has followed that path ever since. Eventually, her journey took her to New York where she met Assis and a musical collaboration began. While living in New York Gould has performed with a number of luminaries, notably the pianist John de Martino (who has also recorded with Assis). Gould and Assis have just toured New Zealand, appearing in festivals and clubs throughout the two Islands. They have toured with great musicians and they intend to record soon in Auckland. When they do, the well-known New York-based ex-pat Kiwi bass player Richard Hammond will join them.

It was not only the gentle Bossa rhythms that we heard on Wednesday but other livelier types of South American influenced music as well. These were danceable and energy fueled treats. During one such number, the room morphed into a seething mass of swaying bodies, hands raised as they danced. The last number, Magalena was a type of North-Eastern Brazilian rap – fast-paced and reminiscent of Jon Hendricks’ scatting.   There were also quieter numbers, some Brazillian and a few from the USA; the standout among the latter being Gould singing the gorgeous ‘Some other time’ (Bernstein). On that, Roger Manins added whispering fills and Kevin Field provided the perfect understated accompaniment on piano. Nanny Assis Maggie Gould (8)It is said that Latin American music is ‘the other swing music’. That makes for great synergies between Jazz and Latin musicians. It can work well, but only if the musicians have the ears and the courage to submit to the weave. Utilising the considerable skills of pianist Kevin Field, Alex Griffiths on 5 string bass and drummer Ron Samsom (plus for the CJC gig, saxophonist Roger Manins). The mix of Jazz musicians and Brazilian created a spark. Alex Griffiths is obviously well versed in Brazilian rhythms as his lines could not have been better placed. Field has for some time been immersed in this music and he is no stranger to the various clave rhythms either. His understated delicate lines in place of comping held the echoes of Jobim’s own tasteful piano accompaniment. During solo’s he gave both hands full reign in clave rich explorations. Samsom is a talented drummer and throughout the night, he and Assis worked in concert. With Assis on percussion and Samsom on the kit, a wonderfully rich sound scape emerged. At one point Assis beat a cowbell to hold the centre – allowing Samsom additional freedom to move.  This was a moment of pure magic.

ReubenI read once, that a Jazz drummer playing Bossa or Samba is doing three basic things; the right hand replaces the shaker or cowbell, the left hand has the clave pattern and the kick drum follows the bass line. Add in actual congas shakers or cowbell and the interplay has the magnitude of a sonic earthquake.The number that I have posted is ‘O Barquinho’ or ‘My Little Boat(of Love)’ – a tune by Roberto Menescal and sometimes wrongly attributed to Jobim. It is a nice example of the Brazilian Bossa rhythms; rich in subtlety and contrast. It is a long-held tradition in this music to have a female and a male voice – call and response. Gould in English, imparting the wistfulness of the lyrics – Assis in Portuguese – taking me back to the master Joao Gilberto. The Portuguese language is extremely pleasant to the ear, while often masking incredibly sad songs. We didn’t need a dictionary or interpreter on Wednesday as we were transported without them. Nanny Assis’s voice, like his percussion and guitar playing, is pure magic – together the musicians gave us a great night.

They open the Wellington Jazz Festival this year on 30 November. The bottom photograph is by Reuben – the top 3 are mine.

Nanny Assis (percussion, vocals, guitar), Maggie Gould (vocals, arrangements), Alex Griffiths (electric six-string bass), Kevin Field (piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Ron Samsom (drums) – at the Thirsty Dog, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 25 October 2017

 

 

Jef Neve – ‘Spirit Control’

 

Neve (8)This piece was almost titled ‘my career as Jef Neve’s Driver’, but in the end, I shied away from that. In truth, my tenure as a roadie/driver was brief (although fulfilling). The term roadie was perhaps a bit of a stretch also because I only lifted one suitcase (and that was with help). I decided early in life that my ideal job was working as a roadie for a Jazz pianist. I figured that the obligation to lift heavy things would be minimal and that I could consume endless supplies of live improvised music. With regard to the first point, I was woefully under-researched. In Europe, Neve actually travels accompanied by his piano, but luckily for me, the airlines are reluctant to accept a piano as stow-on luggage. The Auckland airport pick-up went flawlessly (apart from the suitcase to person ratio which was resolved by Neve who is used to fitting notes into improbable spaces). As we drove, I chatted; easing my way into the story in true Gonzo journalist fashion. So there we were jammed into my car like Hanseatic cod; Jef, Pieter, Dieter and me; heading for a piano, a rhythm section and a string quartet. This was going to be fun.Neve (3)I met Neve once before and I have followed his career over the years. He is a major artist and a household name in Belguim. A year ago I passed through his beautiful city of Ghent, and I vividly recall a young woman behind the hotel counter asking me what I knew about the city. It was actually Robert Browning who introduced me to Ghent, but I replied Jef Neve. Oh yes, he’s famous she said. When I told her that I had once interviewed him, she was obviously impressed. In her eyes, I was no longer some grey haired tourist but a guy who had met Jef Neve.Neve (7)The KMC is a venue with good acoustics; not too dry – not too wet. It was once a television studio and before that the principal home of radio in New Zealand. Now it houses the UoA Jazz School and the School of dance. I found a swivel chair and slid my self across to the listening sweet spot as the trio rehearsed. Then, the string quartet turned up and the work began in earnest. Into that darkened space the music spirits descended; channelling themselves through Neve’s fingers and entering the musicians one by one. I sat there through four and a half hours of rehearsal; soaking up the sound; awestruck and utterly engrossed from start to finish. Cam McArthur was on bass and Ron Samsom on drums. Both are very fine musicians – on this gig they manifested as truly great musicians.Neve (6)Experienced improvising musicians are quick to read cues; usually conveyed by a brief glance. Things can change in a moment as new ideas develop; it is a core skill – the ability to interpret subliminal signals and react accordingly. For a classical string quartet, it is different. Cues are generally pencilled into their charts or perhaps conveyed by a conductor. The Black Quartet tackled these difficult charts with vigour, questioning Neve throughout and writing in minute changes or subtle expression marks. I heard Neve remark afterwards how enormously impressed he was with their musicianship – “I would be happy to work with these musicians anytime”, he said. Throughout the day the musicians rehearsed the knotty bits and acclimatised themselves to function as an ensemble. Watching music like this take shape is a joy.Neve (4)Concerts like this are underpinned by hard work and it usually takes a number of rehearsals to achieve tight ensemble playing. Occasionally I get to observe bands in rehearsal or in a recording studio and as the hours go by you can feel the energy shift. An evolution occurs as the music is properly understood and internalised. So it was with this ensemble and after hours of concentrated work, they breathed in unison. The key to this was Neve who is a gifted communicator and patience personified. When energy is harnessed in this way it becomes spirit. Neve had two assistants with him and as the ensemble poured over the charts these two quietly wove their magic. Both sat at consoles and throughout the day they tweaked, miked-up and fine-tuned the sound. The string section was miked to perfection, giving out a sweet woody sound but subtly amplified to exactly the right place in the mix. An audience is seldom aware of the hours a good sound technician puts in (that is unless they do a poor job). This was sound mixing as an art-form. The results were perfection.

I watched the string section throughout the day as layer after layer of complexity was added to already complex charts. I wondered how they would ever remember it all but they did. The performance sang like the gods had blessed it. After all of that work, they yielded to the spirit control. It is often said that Rock is simple music made to sound complex and that Jazz is complex music made to sound simple. As they played this beautiful music, it flowed with such ease. All of the intricacies and fine tuning of the rehearsal were subsumed into the greater whole. This is Neve’s gift; a master musician who blends genres seamlessly, who breathes life into the notes on a stave and takes others along with him. For me, that sublime performance was enhanced by the journey proceeding it. On that day, I was not only a driver but a music voyeur; the best job in the world.Neve (5)‘Spirit Control’ is a lovely album. It is richly satisfying and with a clarity of purpose that cuts through genre and preconception. There is an orchestral quality to Neve’s piano so when the orchestra comes in or fades out the transition feels seamless. There are so many clever references in this music – often shimmering – mirage-like; Tango, folk, modern classical, Nordic improvised Ambient, even pop. This is, however, Jazz of the highest order. Not drawing on the blues but on the many musical forces of Neve’s continent. Jazz has many homes in the modern world. While most of the pieces on the album were played at the Auckland concert there were also new arrangements and pieces from previous albums. There were also hard swinging trio passages. During these, Samsom and McArthur were astounding, moving from arco bass or colourist drumming to a dizzying, exciting, take no prisoners swing.  The cross-appeal of this album is evidenced by the fact that it appeared on the Belgium pop charts and stayed there for weeks.jef_neve_-_spirit_control

The next day a smaller concert was held at the Lewis Eady showrooms in Epsom. This was a solo piano gig and Neve took a very different tack to the day before. While he played a few of his own compositions, he also played some Jazz standards – Monk’s ‘I mean you’ was a rare treat – with a stride piano left hand accentuating Monk’s delightfully quirky tune.  Strayhorn’s ‘Lush Life’ was moving and Joni Mitchell’s ‘A case of you’ was delicate and beauty manifest. After the concert, we ate tapas in K’Road and then I drove them into the Waitakere hills. We stopped at the highest trig point and later at Rose Hallaby’s cottage. As they looked out over the vast expanse of native bush and the smells of forest washed away the smells of the city,  I saw the amazement and wonder on their faces. When you live in the lowlands views like this are rare. I told them of the many artists and musicians who live in these hills. When your attuned to the creative spirit then life is good.

These performances were part of the Auckland Jazz Festival. Jef Neve is a Universal recording artist and the album and other information is available from JefNeve.com

All photos except the album cover were taken by me during the rehearsal on Saturday 14 October 2017

 

 

 

Jamie Oehlers & Tal Cohen

Tal & Jamie (4)Jamie Oehlers is a tenor saxophone heavyweight who earns widespread respect. His playing is conversational, and like all good conversationalists, he listens as well as he articulates his own point of view. An unashamed melodicist, a musician of subtlety, a dream weaver with a bell-like clarity of tone. Oehlers tours regularly and we are lucky enough to be on his touring circuit. This trip, he was accompanied by Tal Cohen; an Israeli born, New York-based pianist; an artist increasingly coming to the favourable attention of reviewers; an artist praised by fellow musicians. Cohen and Oehlers have been playing together for years and over that time they have built an uncanny rapport. Out of that has emerged something special; their 2016 duo album titled ‘Innocent dreamer’.Tal & Jamie (1)As far as I know, this was Cohen’s first visit to New Zealand and it was certainly his first visit to the CJC. He’s a compelling pianist and the perfect counter-weight for Oehlers. On duo numbers, they responded to each other as good improvisers should, each giving the other space and expanding the conversation as the explorations deepened. Intimate musical exchanges of this type work best when the musicians care deeply about the project. They work best between friends. We saw two sides to Cohen on this tour. The thoughtful, unhurried, deep improviser and the percussive player who found a groove and worked it to the bone. The second half of the gig brought a rhythm section to the bandstand; Olivier Holland and Ron Samsom. Having such an interesting contrast between sets made both halves work better. The second set was approached with vigour; Oehlers digging into a standard, often preceded by a nice intro, through the head and then… boom. This was when the fireworks happened.

The chemistry between Oehlers and Cohen was obvious in the duo set, but adding in the hard-swinging Holland and on-fire Samsom shook up the dynamic once again.  Suddenly there were new and wild interactions occurring, short staccato responses, dissonant asides, crazy interjections; these guys were bouncing off each other and above all, they were enjoying themselves. When musicians live in the moment, and the audience feels that magic, they feed it back. The virtuous loop that sustains all performance art. I spoke to Cohen later and talked about playing styles. He is not impressed by pianists who strive to sound like the past. You can respect the past, bring it to your fingertips but still sound like your taking it somewhere new. He did. This night was the proof of the pudding; the standards performed were all living breathing entities.Innocent DreamerThe first set opened with a heartfelt ‘Body & Soul’ (Green) which set the tone. The tune that really took my attention though was Oehlers ‘Armistice’. A beautiful piece conjuring up powerful images and telling its story unequivocally. There was also a nice tune referencing Cohens family. The first set finished with the lively Ellington tribute – ‘Take the Coltrane’ . The second set (the quartet) opened with the lovely ‘It could happen to You’ (Van Heusen), followed by a tune that Oehlers has made his own; ‘On a Clear Day’ (Learner/Lane) – (a recent Oehlers album title). Next, the quartet performed ‘Nardis’ (Evans/Davis) – this was wonderful and it reminded me of the endless re-evaluation and probing of that tune by Evans in his final years. This version did not sound like Evans – it was born again – if any modal tune deserves to live forever, it is surely this one.

Lastly, and in keeping with their tradition, Oehlers invited tenor player Roger Manins to the stand. After a quick discussion, they settled on ‘I remember April’ (de Paul). Back and forth they went, weaving arpeggios in and out of each other’s lines – moving like dancers; counterpoint, trading fours, all of the band responding to the challenge and reacting in turns. A KC set piece at the bottom of the Pacific.

Jamie Oehlers (tenor saxophone), Tal Cohen (piano), plus Olivier Holland (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums) – for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Rd Auckland, 27 September 2017. Google Jamie Oehlers Bandcamp.com for a copy of the album.

 

Jay Rodriguez & Jonathan Crayford – music with heart & soul

Jay JoCray (2)Behind the doors of the beautiful Kauri villa, down the long corridor and the wide descending staircase, past the crush of people eagerly awaiting a significant and unique musical event, we edged forward; shuffled by the crowd, finding ourselves in a surprisingly large room; large enough to hold seventy people, a gorgeous warmly lit room with mirrored walls – an old dance studio brought back to life. As we crossed the room Jay Rodriguez greeted us, behind him, Jonathan Crayford shuffled through sheet music; both framed by an elegant grand piano and an array of horns on stands. I had interviewed Rodriguez earlier and had attended his sell out gig at the CJC Creative Jazz Club. There was never any doubt that this night, like the one a few nights earlier would deliver something special.Jay JoCray (1)If ever two musicians were destined to play duo format, it is these two. It is a challenging format as the safety nets are gone; it is deep level communication and frighteningly intimate. It requires deep listening and empathy as much as storytelling; it requires conversational dexterity. This was a night never to be forgotten, a night when great music became sublime. Rodriguez and Crayford have been friends for a long time, meeting up in New York in the late 90’s and forming an instant connection; Rodriguez’ ‘Groove Collective’ and other projects the meeting ground. They refer to each other as musical brothers and their communication during the last three days underscored that.Jay JoCray The first time I saw them together was around eight years ago. The gig stuck in my mind for many reasons, but especially because of one tune; Bob Dylan’s ‘I pity the poor immigrant’. It spoke directly to me as it oozed with humanity. When I interviewed Rodriguez I teased out this a theme; pointing to the set lists, the tunes which cut to the heart of the human condition, tunes communicated with deep empathy. For example, their rendition of Keith Jarrett’s ‘The rich (and the poor)’, Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’. The former, a blues, reminding us that the blues is more than just a musical form. In their hands, it informs us about inequality, discrimination, hurt and hope. The human condition again. The latter, ‘Alabama’, moved me to tears. Jazz lovers know this story, but it has seldom been told so well. The piece is based on the cadences of a Martin Luther King speech, a speech given immediately after four little girls were killed as they worshipped, murdered by an unrepentant KKK. The musicians dived straight into the emotion of this awful tale; the incomprehension and anger, then a plea for humanity, an exhortation to do better, the hope; it was all in there.

In answer to the question about humanism, Rodriguez pointed out the realities of American life. “We are living through hard times back home and the blues is about reality. Expressing life from the heart is something that can’t be taught in Jazz school. Jazz school gives you the basics, but your voice is something else, you have to search; some never find it”. He told me that he had been lucky enough to find his own musical voice early on and he was comfortable with it. He can play in many styles with ease and the key to this is the man himself. He is intelligent, open-minded and well-informed, but it’s his friendliness and warmth that impresses most. The man and his music are one.Jay JoCray (3)He is a multi-reeds and winds player and his command of each instrument is strong. I asked him if he favoured one horn over another or had been tempted to double less? This was prompted by a similar discussion with Bennie Maupin. Maupin’s answer had cut to the point, “It’s mostly about dedication, hard work and five times the amount of practice”. Rodriguez answer was a little different. “Man, I love these instruments, every single one of them, and I couldn’t abandon any of them”. It is impressive to hear an artist sounding so strong and so individualistic on so many instruments; bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute (he also doubles on alto and baritone saxophone). His bass clarinet is rich and woody with a tone production like John Surman – his tenor can range from low down raspy bluesiness to the light vibrato-less sound of ‘Pres’; and all of this in a clear authentic voice.

Crayford is an extraordinary musician, but last week he pulled out something extra. This was about personal chemistry (or perhaps alchemy). It was largely down to him that the project was conceived and he certainly made the most of it. He is the New Zealand ‘Tui’ Jazz artist of the year, a respected international troubadour, a pioneer reaching beyond the stars. The CJC quartet gig was a satisfying and joyous occasion but there was even better to come. When I interviewed Rodriguez a few days later he and Crayford invited me to a private event; the mysterious duo gig: so here I was in this amazing space, the mirrored dance studio, an oasis hidden in deep suburbia.  As soon as they began playing the conversation deepened, each revealing new subtleties and wearing their hearts on the sleeves; … humanity. As far as I know, none of it was recorded and while that is sad, perhaps it is only right. Sometimes magic should be left well alone – left untrammelled, lest it changes like Schroedinger’s cat.Jay JoCray (4) During the dance studio gig, their song choices delighted and astonished. For example, Monk’s ‘Epistrophy’, A Puccini aria, Michel Legrand’s ‘You must believe in spring’, McCartney’s ‘Long and winding road’; all in all an improbable and extraordinary journey. The CJC set list included Yusef Lateef’s stunningly beautiful ‘Morning’, Victor Young’s ‘Golden Earrings’ Keith Jarrett’s ‘Rich (and the poor man)’ – from the Dewey Redman/Jarrett/Haden Impulse era, John Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’ and a lovely original by Rodriguez (I think it was titled ‘Your Sound’). Mostyn Cole and Ron Samsom were amazing as well. They are both fine musicians and a good choice for this line-up.

When you look at the Jay Rodriguez discography or bio, it is no wonder he is so comfortable in such a variety of musical spaces. He started on saxophone as a child and soon came under the tutelage of the greats. His mentors along the way included Paquito D’ Rivera, Phil Woods, Sir Roland Hannah, Barry Harris, Kenny Werner, George Coleman, Joe Henderson, John Gilmore, Gil Goldstein and so it goes on. It reads like the history of Jazz. I can think of few players who have worked with both Doc Cheatham and John Zorn (yes he evidently played Cobra and has performed at the Knitting Factory). He is Grammy nominated and has guested on the Jimmy Fallon show.

 Music is a universal language, but its primal source is often overlooked. Scientists tell us that it is, the original and most profound form of communication; it is the lingua franca of our polyglot planet. All too often we focus on the scaffolding or the dialect; all too often we marvel at technical skills or frown at the lack thereof. The older I grow, the more I desire something different; the sound of the human spirit; communication straight from the heart. While Jay Rodriguez and Jonathan Crayford possess a grab bag of wizardry, they also transform notes into an unforgettable life experience. Long may this collaboration continue.

Rodriguez/Crayford Quartet: Jay Rodriguez (tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, Flute), Jonathan Crayford (Rhodes, electronics), Mostyn Cole (upright bass), Ron Samson (drums). 30th August 2017, CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, Auckland.

Rodriguez/Crayford Duo: Jay Rodriguez (tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, flute) – Jonathan Crayford (piano). 1st September 2017, Grey Lynn.

Rubim de Toledo (Canada)

Rubim (1)There have been two bass-player led groups at the CJC in as many months and both have been excellent. Last weeks featured group was a trio led by Rubim de Toledo: a Canadian from Alberta, of Brazilian origin and a well-established musician. Like many modern improvisers, his influences are diverse; that said his music fits squarely into the Jazz mainstream. The first thing to grab me was his big rounded tone, gifting the tunes with a richness and beauty that captivated from start to finish. While most bass sits deep within the mix, de Toledo’s voice spoke clearly; not by overcrowding his band-mates nor by punching through the others as an electric bassist might, but because every musical utterance sounded right. His melodicism and clarity of ideas were enhanced by devices which I found appealing; his occasional and appropriate use of vibrato at the end of a line, sometimes, rarely, he combined this with a slight bending of the note. He is definitely a successor to the Evans trio model; a bassist who communicates as an equal.Rubim (2)In a live setting and with unfamiliar sidemen, the best plan is to loosen the reigns. This he did and with Kevin Field on Rhodes and fellow Canadian and long time friend Ron Samsom on drums the gig gelled. Much of the gig showcased his compositions, some from his 2014 album ‘The Bridge”. The three standards he played were a killing version of Maiden Voyage (Herbie Hancock), Work Song (Nat Adderly) and a rendering of ‘Recordeme’ (Joe Henderson). His own compositions ranged from the thoughtful ‘Autumn Celeste’ to evocative panoramic tunes like ‘The Gap’ (about the Rockies) and ‘Red Eye’ (about a Brazilian train known locally as the train of death). The gig was a pleasure from start to finish and the enthusiastic audience response said it all.RubimAs I was leaving de Toledo handed me a copy of his recent album ‘The Bridge’ and it wasn’t until yesterday that I found time to play it. What a truly beautiful album this is; beautifully crafted arrangements and tunes which burn with a quiet intensity at any tempo.  On ‘The Bridge’, he is surrounded by an ensemble of talented Albertans and a guest artist from the USA. The lineup of bass, trumpet, saxophone, trombone, keyboards, drums (and on track 8 a vocal) is well conceived – balancing airiness with textural richness. The musicianship throughout is noteworthy; particularly Sean Jones on trumpet, a well respected musician from the USA: the keyboardist and everyone making this album memorable. As you would expect with an ensemble and with an album as skillfully recorded as this, de Toledo is less dominant. Here he lets his charts tell the story and they certainly do.

. The audio clip is ‘Winters Here’ from the album.

Rubim de Toledo Trio: Rubim de Toledo (upright bass, leader), Kevin Field (Rhodes), Ron Samsom (drums), The trio played the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Rd Auckland, July 19, 2017.

The Bridge (Album): Rubim de Toledo (bass), Guest artist: Sean Jones (trumpet), Jim Brenan (saxophone), Carsten Rubeling (trombone), Chris Andrew (keyboard), Jon McCaslin (drums), Allison Lynch (vocals).Rubim (3)

Ari Hoenig as Time Lord

Hoenig (1).jpg
When drummer Ari Hoenig was among us recently, it was as if he came from another dimension; he was future and past – a Jazz time lord. The elements of the old were all there at his finger tips, but also something that was forward looking. He could lead with a melodic line, he could set up a groove, he was a colourist plus and he could subdivide time in ways that made me doubt reality. As he played, stuff happened on the kit that I had not seen before; it felt like a new dawn of drumming, but here’s the thing; as fresh as it was, it was also the most natural thing imaginable – nothing jarred – everything flowed from a deep well of musical knowledge. He was deep inside the music, looking half crazy – inside the tune and outside. He was so integrated with the keyboardist Nitai Hershkovitz that they appeared as a single unit. I detect Ari’s influence in modern drummers and because his influence is so palpable, I thought it a good idea to engage some local Jazz drummers on the topic. Here are Ron Samsom, Mark Lockett and Stephen Thomas with a few insights.Hoenig (2).jpg

JL32: Ron, when you introduced Ari and Nitai in Auckland you spoke of Ari’s influence on modern Jazz drumming. You described him as an innovator; suggesting that he may not be aware himself of the extent of his influence. Could you expand on that and tell us why?

Ron Samsom: Well, Ari is a pretty humble guy really and I didn’t want to embarrass him in my introduction. But in reality, what he has accomplished in terms of the development of new drumming language, is pretty remarkable. I mean coming out of the tradition of implied pulse modulation with drummers like Tony Williams, Elvin Jones or even newer generation players like Jeff Watts, Ari has developed the ability to stay “outside” the ground rhythm for what seems like an eternity. The influence on younger players coming out of NYC is pretty evident. Just check out Henry Cole, Marcus Gilmore to name a couple of guys who seem to be going even further with this concept and their own language.

JL32: Mark, I think that you have had previous contact with Ari and maybe with Nitai as well. Can you tell me something about that and about bringing the project to New Zealand?

Mark Lockett: I studied with Ari for six years, I would travel to NYC and take several lessons go away transcribe my lessons and practice like crazy for a few months then do it all again.  Last year we were hanging at Smalls after Ari’s gig one night and I said ‘Hey you should come out to New Zealand sometime I’ll hook it up.’  As soon as we moved back to NZ Ari contacted me and asked if we could do something so I organised a New Zealand tour on the back of him visiting Australia.

JL32: Stephen, I saw you at the Auckland gig and like the rest of us you were blown away. How do you evaluate Ari’s work and how do you see his place among modern drummers?

Stephen Thomas: Ari Hoenig is the type of drummer who has inspired a whole generation of jazz drummers and music enthusiasts in general. Because of this, we were all amazed to see Ari play “in the flesh” as for us kiwis, our exposure to his playing comes from things like YouTube and mp3’s and the like. When I went to his gig in Auckland, from the very first stroke of the cymbal it was clear to me he was on a completely different level to anything I’d really seen before. Ari is clearly a pioneer of modern jazz drumming that has inspired a whole generation of musicians. His mastery of rhythmic subdivisions, polyrhythms and musical time has inspired not just jazz drummers but musicians in general far and wide. He really is at the forefront of modern drummers.

JL32: Ron, Ari appeared to hold the sticks differently, firmer, at times further down – perhaps because of this his flurries and modulation were so precise. Old school drummers must puzzle at this. Can you tell me a little about these evolving hand positions?

Ron Samsom: When he was in the workshop, Ari was quick to point out that “praying mantis” was a visual term used by one of his early teachers as a descriptor of his unorthodox style. I think we need to remember that the ‘drum set’ is a fairly new instrument and there are lots of options in terms of technical approach. The bottom line is really ’the sound’ and I don’t think you could ever fault Ari in terms of dynamic control and timbre. I think he is all about the sound. He plays drums that are wide open in tuning and resonance but finds a way to control this through his approach. You can hear him use the harmonics of the drums to create colour and depth – it’s a beautiful thing. How he achieves this is a great question.

JL32: Mark, I have seen you hold the sticks in a similar way. Can you talk us through this and explain how it alters control?

Mark Lockett: A lot of drummers in NYC e.g. Bill Stewart and Paul Motian hold the sticks a bit more rigidly and different to a lot of drummers I see out here.  I remember Michael Brorby at Acoustic Recording Studio (NYC) saying that this grip which is using more forearm helps create a much more accurate and defined cymbal pattern.  It was the great Australian drummer Darryn Farrugia who turned me on to holding the sticks a lot further up closer to the middle as this gives you more bounce and it worked for me.

JL32: Stephen, I think that so called Jazz drumming orthodoxy is being subtly deconstructed post millennium. Can you comment on his technique from a drummers perspective?

Stephen Thomas: I think this question really sums up the music world we find ourselves in post millennium especially in the internet era. We are exposed to such a wide variety of music through online mediums that it is hardly surprising the traditional art form of “jazz” is evolving at a rapid pace and taking on influences from many other sonic worlds and styles of music. I think in this same vein, individual drummers are finding their own voice which is informed not just by the history of jazz but also by other distinct styles and sounds of music. Although this is not a new concept, Ari Hoenig is very far down this road, as he is such a unique voice behind the instrument, you would know his playing from just hearing the first few measures of music. This is no easy feat and something we all aspire to.

In terms of technique, I think Ari has developed his own technique which has allowed him to pursue this unique voice. In some ways, his technique is quite unorthodox and from my humble observation, it seemed to me he was using a lot of tension in his physical body to generate his sound. The fact he has been able to make this work for him is very unique and I think is a good reminder that there is no real ‘right or wrong’ in terms of technique as it is what brings the individuality out in drummers. As as a small side note, however – although this works for Ari, mere mortals like myself who have had body tension/pain issues in our playing have found it to be a stumbling block that we are seeking to overcome and I think long term, too much tension can become an issue.

JL32: Ron, I saw some astonishing neo-colourist drumming; subtle accenting and gentle cymbal work, but then turning on a dime. Ari seemed to extend the concept way beyond the Paul Motian model. He would suddenly create a melodic line or just tap out an accelerating beat in the centre of the snare. Can you comment on this extension of the colourist palette?

Ron Samsom: I don’t really know enough of Paul Motian’s playing to offer a solid opinion – but the trio records with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell are pretty great examples of how a drummer can colour and support melodic ideas or become an entity in its own right. I think what Motian’s playing did for everyone, is suggest that the drummer could be more. Drums could be melodic, textural, a motivating soloist/accompanist, a complete musical statement onto itself. Ari’s playing has all of these things in spades but I’d hesitate to say it’s beyond Motian’s achievements – It’s just context. Ari is communicating with his generation of improvisers that are versed in rhythm scale, odd time, implied modulation etc. but these are just tools to convey music. They are not music without context and personalisation.

JL32: Mark, that was some seriously deep stuff that Nitai was playing. I have heard Brad Mehldau do something similar. This is brave, as it will leave the purists behind. It sounds exciting to me. Would you like to comment on their use of deep improvisational groove music as a vehicle?

Mark Lockett: I don’t really think this is anything new, but in this setting, there was only a duo so this gave Ari and Nitai lots of space to stretch out and they weren’t confined to a bass player or another comping instrument being in the mix.  I think the rhythmic vocabulary they draw upon brings a real element of excitement to the music.  I think Ari chooses his sidemen very wisely and consequently, they sound like a band and want to play together rather than have their own agenda.

Stephen Thomas: I really dug how at the Auckland show I was at, Nitai had some PHAT bass synth going on. So much so that at one point, because he and Ari were so locked in, I thought the bass drum had like a sub-bass mic or something on it which was a good indication of how impeccable their time feel was and how locked in they were even just as a duo! This is probably what I meant before about jazz taking on influences from other sound worlds and musical styles, with electronic timbres in the fold more and more. What stood out to me and I said this to Ron after the show, was that although there were only two musicians playing, you never felt like there was any lack in terms of sound or textures which was kind of mind blowing. Also, it was clear that both Ari and Nital are so versed in jazz vocabulary that even though some of what they played was “non-traditional”, there was a depth to what they were playing which was hard to describe. The well of musical concepts and language that they both had was very deep, to say the least, and I was left feeling very inspired indeed.

JL32: Guys, what do you want your students to take away from this experience?

Mark Lockett: The students I spoke to after the concerts were totally blown away and I saw them beaming.  I heard one student say ‘this concert changed my whole musical trajectory’.  I think if the students can be inspired to listen, learn, practice, want to get better and create that’s really all anyone could hope for their students.

Stephen Thomas: think Ari gave us a fantastic provocation to pursue individuality behind the instrument, whilst reminding us to pursue a depth of knowledge and language of the jazz tradition. Although this can sound like an oxymoron, Ari Hoenig seems to personify this as he is such a unique voice whilst having all the language and depth there too. This is inspiring for students to keep checking out the history whilst also pursuing what gets them going musically and sonically, to hopefully find their own place in the music world and create something which is ultimately fun and rhythmically/musically satisfying! Every time I see an inspiring player, the thing that really gets me is the amount of joy and playfulness they have whilst making music and Ari had this in spades, which I think we can all learn from. It’s a great reminder that music ultimately should be a joyful and playful experience which we can bring our own personality and emotions to which can ultimately move people and bring joy and healing to a world which needs it!

JL32: Thanks for your insights guys. I know how busy you all are and I appreciate that you put down the sticks to answer these questions so thoroughly. Finally, thanks for supporting JazzLocal32.com.

Ron Samsom is a Canadian born Kiwi and the course coordinator at the University of Auckland Jazz School. He is well recorded and has worked with Jazz musicians from many continents. Mark Lockett has just returned after many years in New York and he teaches, tours and gigs around Australasia. Stephen Thomas is a gifted New Zealand drummer who is increasingly in demand for high-end gigs and highly regarded on the New Zealand Jazz scene.Hoenig.jpg

ANZAC Day Standards & Photo Essay @ KMC

Haines K (14)Long after the ANZAC commemorations had finished, when The World Masters Games contestants were either celebrating their success or limping toward the nearest A&E, a largely unheralded gig took place at the KMC in Shortland Street. It was fitting, that on a day of remembrance, the faithful old war horses, the standards, were honoured. It is surprisingly rare to see a standards only instrumental gig these days. The event was curated by Kevin Haines and what a treat it was. The definition of what makes a Jazz standard is a moveable feast, but the safest definition is that the tunes are, or were, from the standard repertoire. Most, but not all standards come from the Great American Songbook, e.g. Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Victor Young, Duke Ellington Ira & George Gershwin etc.  Many of them, and often the best, from failed musicals. Other Jazz standards come from the pen of gifted composers like Sonny Rollins.Haines K (9) When introducing the band, Haines stated,” The ability to play the standards well, is the benchmark against which Jazz musicians are ultimately judged”. Assembled on the bandstand were some of New Zealand’s finest musicians. Kevin Haines (bass), Nathan Haines (tenor & soprano saxophones, vocal), Kevin Field (piano), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Ron Samsom (drums).  The band gave it everything and the exchanges were beautiful – Nacey and Field conjuring up the Evans/Hall duos, Nathan Haines making his tenor sound like the Desmond Alto. The night was well attended and it will certainly be remembered.

The set list on the night was magnificent, with several surprises nestled among the more famous standards: (1) Beautiful Love (tune composed in 1931 by King/Young/Alstyne – it was featured in two long forgotten movies during 1932) (2) Tarde (Milton Nascimento 1969 – immensely popular in Brazil but popularised in Jazz circles by Wayne Shorter). (3) Alone Together (Schwartz/Dietz 1932 – from the musical ‘Flying Colours’). (4) But Not For Me (tune George Gershwin, 1930, from the musical ‘Girl Crazy’). (5) impossible Beauty (Nathan Haines 2000 – a  New Zealand standard if ever there was one -from his album ‘Sound Travels’). (6) If I should lose You (tune by Rainger  1936 – used in the film ‘Rose of the Rancho’. (7) Stella by Starlight (tune by Victor Young 1944 used as the score in the film ‘The uninvited’ rated the 10th most popular standard in the world). (8) Detour Ahead (Herb Ellis, Johnny Frigo and probably Lou Carter, 1947 – a true Jazz Standard, famously played by BIll Evans on his Village Vanguard sessions and later, and closer to home by Vince Jones), (9) All The Things You Are (tune by Jerome Kern, 1939, written for the musical ‘Very Warm for May’ played frequently, sometimes parodied, often messed with, much-loved).

Thanks, Kevin.

DOG meets KOOPMAN

KoopmanDog (1)There is never a guarantee that two good acts blended into one will work. This one did. DOG and the various iterations of the Peter Koopman trio are each in their way self-contained; exuding a confidence born out of time spent with familiar musicians. Bands that play together over long periods anticipate and react instinctively. Stepping outside of that circle can be a risk, but that is a large part of what improvised music is about.  DOG are a tight unit with quick-fire lines and nimble moves.  By adding a guitar, DOG risked crowding their musical space; with Koopman, this did not happen. He is an aware and thoughtful musician. The pairing aided by some well-written charts, a pinch of crazy and good humour. The result was a looser sound, but the joy and respect provided all the glue it needed for the gig to work well.

The first number up was Roger Manins ‘Peter the Magnificent’, a tune featured on the award-winning DOG album. Manins penned it years ago, but this is the first time we have seen he and Koopman play it together (the Peter referred to in the tune is Koopman).  Next up was Koopman’s ‘Judas Boogie’, a terrific catchy tune and a great vehicle for improvisation. It has memorable hooks and a feel good factor about it. It’s the third time that I have heard the tune and it is always mesmerising – weaving in and around a dominant bass note, a relentless pulse drawing you ever deeper into the theme. I like tunes like that, they are a gift to good interpreters.KoopmanDogThe unison lines and exchanges between guitar, tenor saxophone and Rhodes were just lovely. Kevin Field is always on form and the Rhodes with its chiming clarity was the perfect foil for Koopman and Manins. Field is the complete musician, tasteful, original and with impeccable time feel; Koopman’s guitar benefitting from the well-voiced chords, gently and sparsely comping beneath. Manins also gave a nice solo, and as we have come to expect, he reached for a place beyond the known world. Olivier Holland had a slightly different approach to Koopman’s regular bassist Alduca. Both approaches worked well on Judas Boogie. The interplay between Holland and Samsom was also instructive. As is often the case with good Jazz; the complicated was made to sound easy.KoopmanDog (2)

The craziest tune of the night was Manins ‘Chook 40’ – a crazy humour filled romp which swerved close to the avant-garde.  A Zappa moment filled with joy, and above all abandon. The last tune was titled ‘Home Schooled’.  This is a newer Field composition, one that regular CJC attendees will recall hearing during his last quartet gig. In this expanded context it sounded truly amazing – the tune was too long to post as a clip today, but I will try to do so later. The unison lines in that are particularly striking and the changes in mood and tempo revealed hidden delights.

DOG: Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (Rhodes), Olivier Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums) – with Peter Koopman (guitar).

The Missing Video Series (1)

Neil 2Around Christmas, I discovered that I could not upload video to ‘YouTube’.  I spent a few weeks trying to figure out what was causing the problem and then I made a fatal error – I consulted grown-up experts and that only delayed the problem. I should have asked a 12-year-old because none of the experts had the faintest idea what was occurring. After three months I finally nutted it out for myself, old as I am.  FYI – when you upgrade your operating system, the default setting on power-saver puts the machine to sleep half an hour after the last keystroke.

Yesterday was Tito Puente’s birthday and so this is an appropriate time to post the first of the missing videos. First up is the Neil Watson Quartet playing a medley. The latter part of which is Tito Puente’s magnificent samba ‘Picadillo’. What a fabulous tune and what a hard-swinging rendition. It is all the more amazing due to the first two segments of the medley; An eye-popping version of the Erroll Garner classic ‘Misty, which swings between tradition and something akin to a Marc Ribot Ceramic Dog version. This Avant Jazz -Punk rendition gives us new ears on an old tune. Part two of the medley is ‘Moonlight in Vermont’ (Blackburn/Suessdorf). This particularly references the famous Johnny Smith/Stan Getz version but again inviting us to reconsider it from an altered vantage point. A brief and deliberately clichéd quote from ‘Stairway to Heaven’ caused hoots of laughter.
The second video is from the DOG Live concert December 15th, 2016. This was a great gig and the performances were of the highest order. What a bad week for my videos to become unavailable! Posting the clip now makes amends and I have more to follow.  We can expect a new DOG album sometime this year – I can’t wait.  The tune in the video clip is titled ‘Push Biker’ by drummer Ron Samsom.  Roger Manins and the other DOG members are playing out of their skins here.  The intensity of this performance is astonishing, even by DOG standards. The group is by now well seasoned and it shows – in dog years they are well and truly veterans.DOG 254 2

‘Studies in Tubular’ available from www.neilwatson.co.nz. ‘DOG’ (a Tui winner as New Zealand Jazz album of the year) from Rattle Jazz. Both gigs were at the Thirsty Dog for the CJC Creative Jazz Club

More clips will follow incrementally.  I would also like to thank those who watch the videos – more than 70,000 of you have during the last two or three years.

John Fenton  – JazzLocal32.com

Michal Martyniuk – Lewis Eady Concert

Michal 17 128.jpgThe Lewis Eady special concert featuring the Michal Martyniuk trio lived up to its promise. It’s not often I get to hear Martyniuk and more’s the pity because his playing resonates strongly with me. He attended the Auckland University Jazz School, but he doesn’t sound like his contemporaries as he brings his Polish origins to the keyboard. His is the approach of Wasilewsky and other modern young Polish improvisers. Rhythmically adventurous, melodically rich and with harmonies often referencing the twentieth century European classical composers. Polish Jazz developed in isolation and in secret, the Nazi’s forbad it and the Russians strongly discouraged it. From Krzysztof Komeda onwards the music communicated a unique sense of place, an authenticity, self-contained inventiveness and at times even wistfulness. The initial impetus came from covert listening to Radio America but the rich wellsprings of Chopin, eastern bloc avant-garde and mazurka are there too.

Martyniuk came to New Zealand with his family in his late teens. His love of Jazz and in particular the Polish variant, began before he arrived. He had already begun his piano studies in Poland and attending a Jazz School in his new country was a natural choice. It was therefore fitting that his trio consisted of drummer Ron Samsom the programme coordinator of the UoA Jazz School, and bass player Cameron McArthur, a gifted ex UoA Jazz School student. These musicians are more than capable of working their own Kiwi magic into a European style of playing.michal-17-131  They were joined on three numbers by saxophonist Nathan Haines, a long time mentor of Martyniuk’s. The concert marked a cross-road for Martyniuk as he and the trio departed for the Jakarta based Java Jazz Festival soon afterwards. This prestigious event is the biggest Jazz festival in the world and it bodes well that they were chosen to perform there. The festival is attended by well over 100,000 people and it pulls in the who’s who of the Jazz world. After the concert Martyniuk is travelling on to Europe (and Poland) where he hopes to intensify his studies and absorb more of the Jazz of his youth. He informed me that he would probably return in about a years time. That is something for local Jazz lovers to look forward to.  The back room of the Lewis Eady complex is a good space acoustically, the audience embraced by an encompassing  circle of grand pianos. There is a sense that these resting machines add sympathetic resonance to the performance, it certainly seemed so last Wednesday.michal-17-129As the programme developed, the trio dived deep into the material. They demonstrated their skill as individual musicians, but also that they could play as a highly interactive unit. There was room for subtlety as well as bravura, together they sang. Having Haines join them rounded off the performance, especially on his trade mark cutting soprano. No one else locally sounds like him on that horn, he is a master of the instrument. As I listened, Haines brought to mind John Surman, an English improvising saxophonist who has a unique clarity of sound on the three horns he plays.

This is the pattern with our improvising musicians; they travel, work cruise ships and absorb new ideas in far off places, eventually to return, making us the lucky beneficiaries.

The piece I have posted is a Martyniuk composition titled ‘The Awakening’. An extraordinary piece of music where each trio member excels while leaving space for the others. Tension and release, excitement, interaction, it’s all there; very much in the European tradition and as good as anything I have heard in Europe. Samsom achieving a delicious flat-ride sound by sheer technique.

Michal Martyniuk Trio: Martyniuk (piano, compositions), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums) + guest Nathan Haines (soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone) Lewis Eady showrooms, 22nd February 2017

Neil Watson gig / Crystal Choi gig

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Neil W 128.jpgTubular Live: Having earlier reviewed the long anticipated Neil Watson ‘Tubular’ album I looked forward to the live launch. The Thirsty Dog gig was well attended, the audience extremely enthusiastic and no wonder. Although we saw a slightly different line-up from the album band, they were on fire from the first note. Watson, always a confident performer, was more in command than I have ever seen him and he communicated his musical vision effortlessly. Perhaps this was due to the long gestation of the material, but now he had a platform to extend the concepts further and he grabbed the opportunity.  The evening seamlessly covered the breadth of guitar jazz and beyond. While much of the material was influenced by Jazz/Rock or improvisations built on genres like surf guitar, the gentler mainstream Jazz heroes of the past like Johnny Smith and Errol Garner were also honoured. Neil W 130.jpgOn the ‘Tubular’ album his musical influences are evident. At the live gig, he stared those influences down and carved out his own space. He is one of the few New Zealand musicians who can convincingly occupy Frisell or Ribot territory and he demonstrated that. The perfect example was his rendering of the classic five beat Mambo Picadillo by Tito Puente. He began with a solo intro, dissonant chords offering brief hints as to where he was heading. As he developed his theme the audience gasped in delight as Errol Garners ‘Misty’ emerged, morphing into the gentler Johnny Smith version of ‘Moonlight in Vermont’. That it worked at all is a tribute to his musicianship, that it was done so well all the more so. The Mambo was well-arranged and just superb, not a foot remained still and the bar staff stopped in their tracks, swaying.  Another tour de force (not on the album) was his arrangement of ‘Hard rains are going to fall’ (Dylan). This followed his gentle ballad ‘Kerala’.Neil W 131.jpg

The band finished the last set with an upbeat number and there was no way the audience was going to let things lie there. Watson in keeping with his quirky humour and well within his brief; finished with the 1959 surf/rock guitar classic ‘Sleepwalk’ (Santo & Johnny). Accompanying him he had the talented and versatile Ron Samsom (drums) and Olivier Holland (upright bass). Replacing Grant Winterburn on Keyboards and Roger Manins on tenor saxophone was Cameron Allen. If anyone can replace two talented musicians and do so convincingly it is Allen. Instead of a tenor he played baritone saxophone and at other times his array of keyboards and ‘doogon’. I have video but I am still experiencing upload problems – I will upload when sorted.

Cryst 128.jpgCrystal Choi (private concert): This particular invitation-only concert was organised by Jonathan Crayford and the invitations were swiftly taken up. Crayford is a legendary figure on the New Zealand music scene and when he gets behind a young artist, people pay attention. I have watched Choi develop musically over the years, but I had not seen her perform for some time. In the past she has appeared with students, part of an ensemble, seldom stepping into the limelight for long. This was a departure, a brave step into the challenging world of improvised solo piano. Developing artists (and even experienced performers) struggle with this format, some panic and resort to noodling. When Crayford introduced the concert he stated, “Crystal is amazing, and what you are about to hear will speak for itself”. He was right.Cryst 129.jpg

What we witnessed was a rapidly maturing artist. She exuded a confidence I had not seen before and her ideas were well-developed, all communicated with the utmost clarity. There were two sets and most of the compositions were her own. It was a large crowd for such a small space, but not a soul talked, shuffled, clinked glasses or coughed. She had them all in rapt attention as she wove her stories around themes and explored harmonic visions. This is the right musical space for Choi and I hope she develops it further.  A sound that is more European in concept than American, where space, melody, and nuance are dominant. As she worked her way through the sets, everything flowed. If this is what she is like at 22 years of age, I can’t wait to hear her at 32. The sound was well captured and surprisingly, there were no awkward echoes or untoward harmonics considering the size of the room. It certainly helped that she had a ‘Grotrian’ grand to perform on. I hope that we see more solo piano from Choi.

Neil Watson ‘Tubular’ Live: Watson (guitars, compositions), Cameron Allen, (baritone sax, keyboards, electronics), Ron Samsom (drums), Olivier Holland (upright bass) @ the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Thirsty Dog, Auckland.15th February 2017

Chrystal Choi: Solo piano – 12th February 2017

Studies In Tubular

IMG_0215.jpgA review copy of the album ‘Studies in Tubular’ arrived in my letterbox a few days ago and it is vintage Neil Watson. It was recorded in 2011 and left to mature like a fine wine; it was worth the wait. I haven’t asked Watson why he titled the album ‘Studies In Tubular’, but the title feels appropriate. My first thought was that it might reference Mike Oldfield’s trippy minimalist classic ‘Tubular Bells’, and then I recalled that the word ‘tubular’ was once surfer slang for ‘exceptionally good’. Whatever the reason, this is exceptionally good music. The surf reference is not such a great stretch either when you listen carefully. This is deliciously eclectic music and although it touches on many sources, it is an original and highly satisfying offering. Referencing many things but never beholden to any of them.

Watson’s influences are seldom mainstream, but in spite of his touchstones like Sonny Sharrock, Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot, he always brings fresh ideas to the music. His trademark humour is always present in abundance and the ability to avoid taking himself too seriously is a gift that more musicians could adopt to advantage. This is an album made for a long drive, a lazy day at the beach or a sultry summer evening. Track two ‘Wes da Money’ opens with a nod to Wes Montgomery, then deftly takes us into very different territory, this without losing the essence of the opening bars. Guitar surf music (the Atlantics), Jimi Hendrix (Band of Gypsies), early Rock, & Roll. It’s all in there – wonderfully overlaid, motif upon motif.

The beautiful track ‘Kerala’ starts as folksy Americana, evoking a vibe reminiscent of Bill Frisell or Greg Leiz. On ‘Five Bye Blues’ he adds organist Grant Winterburn and what a treat that is. While drummer Ron Samsom lays down a groove beat and bass player Olivier Holland locates the heart, Winterburn comps tastefully behind a lovely guitar line; this reminiscent of the groove merchants like Pat Martino. There is Booker T, Boogie, Zorn and more in this package. This is a music of heart and soul and it brought a smile to my face.  The weather has been a problem this month but with this album you can dispell that memory and lock in an endless summer vibe. Purchase a copy from www.neilwatson.co.nz or alternatively come to the launch at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) which has relocated to the Thirsty Dog, Karangahape Road, 8pm, 15th Feb 20017IMG_0217.jpg

Watson was accompanied on all tracks by Holland and Samsom – Winterburn added his grooves to 2,3,& 5 – additional guests Lewis McCallum and Roger Manins played on tracks 6 & 7 respectively. With a lineup like this, Watson was in good company, but so were they.

Studies in Tubular: Neil Watson (electric, acoustic & synth guitars, compositions), Olivier Holland (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums and percussion), guests; Grant Winterburn 2,3,5, (organ & Wurlitzer), Lewis McCullum (alto saxophone), Roger Manins (baritone saxophone) – (disclaimer: the album rear photograph is mine)