Hearing people talk about the Chris Mason-Battley Group reminds me of the Hindu parable – the blind man and the Elephant. “Oh yeah, that guy has a smooth sweet sound’ one said as if that settled the matter. Well yes, he has got a smooth sound when playing a ballad, but anyone who thinks that defines his music has simply not been paying attention. This band has enormous depth; playing anything from a melodic ballad to music that is way off the grid. What we experienced on Wednesday was music with integrity; at times raw and inventive, drawing us into its heart, emotionally engaging and above all satisfying. The first number was ‘Mountain Song’ (by CMB); then they moved to a series of pieces from the CMB John Psathas project ‘Dialogos’ (progressing through excerpts from ‘Song for Simon’ and ‘Demonic Thesis’). As that set progressed we heard a new composition or two and lastly ‘Tahuna Caravan Park’ from his ‘Two Tides’ album. This gave us a broad sweep of his past projects and the Psathas album in particular. Dialogos was widely acclaimed as an exciting and bold step forward for the band – I can highly recommend the album (out on Rattle). Before the band left the stage for a break, Mason-Battley said; “That was the nice half – the second set is nasty half” (quoting from an album titled ‘The Jaberwocky comes to Town’ which had a ‘nice side’ and a ‘nasty side’.) As pleasing as the band were in the first set, they reached much deeper for the second; pulling out an utterly engaging and masterful performance. It began with several of the blacker pieces from ‘Dialogos’, ‘The Calenture Suite’. The drummer Stephen Thomas must be mentioned at this point – His work was integral to the overall performance and it underlined his maturity as a musician. At times subtle, at others incredibly complex – and all made to look easy in his hands. Thomas was extraordinary throughout and although a relative newcomer to this long-established band, his searing flames licked at their underbelly, an indispensible presence. In perfect contrast to the complex drum flurries was Sam Giles on electric bass. Giles is a master of the ostinato – repeated motifs, perfect time feel and the voodoo factor writ large. He is also an influence on the bands direction; favouring Zorn like explorations and paths less trodden. The CMB Group keyboardest is David Lines, an intersting and in my view under-rated musician. On this gig he played a Roland RD-700. What a beautiful piano and Rhodes sound. A machine hardly heard these days, replaced by the Nord Stage or modern Korgs. While the newer keyboards have more bells and whistles, I am unconvinced that their piano sound is an improvement. Perhaps it sounded so good because of Lines touch? He is not a busy pianist and every note counts, in this gig his often voice leading role was perfect for the project (his solos were stunning). I only wish we saw him more often.
As good as the rest were, Mason Battley stood out; especially on soprano and alto. He has a real stage presence and his luminous lines are always well conceived. It is great to hear him reaching ever deeper as time goes by. The number I have posted is a tune of his titled ‘Drum Dance 4 (Psathas)’; a Coltrane-esk exploration that exemplifies a way-point on their interesting journey. On that tune, everything is in perfect balance, Thomas taking a leading role while the others work off that, each bar taking us deeper, highly charged and sparse. The last tune of the evening was free and political. It was titled ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’; an obvious reference to the greedy authoritarian amoral elites that hold sway in the world; particularly the Trump administration. It was free and it was raw emotion – in the background a loop recited ‘billions and billions’ – then, faintly at first, we heard the strains of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’. The band read the mood of the audience well with that one – people stomped and cheered afterwards as if someone had taken the words right out of their mouths and rendered them into abstract musical form.
CMB Group: Chris Mason-Battley (soprano, alto, tenor saxophones, compositions arrangements, electronics), David Lines (keyboards), Sam Giles (electric bass), Stephen Thomas (drums) @ CJC Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog, K’Rd, Auckland, July 26, 2017