Sean Wayland & David Berkman @ CJC Winter International Series

Sean Wayland

Sean Wayland

We don’t get many offshore Jazz pianists visiting New Zealand, but we have seen quite a few over recent weeks. This particular gig comes hot on the heals of hearing Sean Wayland appearing as featured guest artist with the marvellous Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra. Sean had impressed me at the JMO gig and so I really looked forward to hearing him play at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club).

Before he had played a note Sean Wayland won us over with his easy-going banter. Especially when he thanked us for Mike Nock and mentioned band mate Matt Penman. These are two of Auckland’s best-loved sons and I suspect that Kiwi’s, like Canadians, enjoy our worth acknowledged by the big country next door. This generous acknowledgement by a respected New York based (Aussie born) pianist reveals an interesting truth about Australasian Jazz.

There may be a struggle to meet the financial realities, deal with lack of good pianos and the paucity of gigs, but the two scenes continually produce world-class Jazz musicians. The Scenes are in fact so intermingled that it is often hard to know who is an Aussie and who is a New Zealander. Steve Barry and Mike Nock illustrate this perfectly as they live and work in Australia. Roger Manins lives in New Zealand but gigs across the Tasman every other week.

In spite of the difficulties there is no lack of great music coming out of Australasia and the main problem is that of distribution. An upside of this changing business model is that bands travel more. For the keen Jazz fan live music is once again king. We don’t have to wait for a multi-national recording label to tell us what we should or shouldn’t like, we can explore ‘You Tube’ or ‘Bandcamp’ and hear from the artists directly.

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Sean Wayland is a hugely respected figure on the Australian scene and in New Zealand as well. He is a very modern pianist, as he moves in circles where new approaches are constantly being explored and new sounds developed. After listening to his compositions I was not in the least surprised to find him supported by the likes of Matt Penman, Jochen Rueckert, Will Vinsen, and James Muller. This is essentially the Rosenwinkel generation. While he speaks that language fluently he is unmistakably an individual stylist. No one sounds quite like Sean.

Sean’s tunes are very melodic. Often unfolding over a simple bass line as with ‘eenan’ off his ‘Lurline’ album. What sounds catchy and accessible can actually be quite complex as his approach to rhythm gives the tunes that unique feel. This is tension and release at its sophisticated best. I have put up a version of ‘eenan’ as a ‘You Tube’ clip which unfolds in subtle and beguiling ways. So beguiling in fact that I dreamed the tune two nights in row. Such powerful hooks are not accidental but the result of careful craftsmanship. There is a strong sense of pulse or swing to his tunes, but approached from a different perspective to that of the more traditional pianist.

This intergenerational shift is one that I hear more often as the changing of the guard occurs. Other tunes played to great effect were his, ‘Trane plus Molly equals countdown” and the solo piece ‘Little Bay’. Both of those tunes are found on the ‘Expensive Habit’ album. ‘Trane plus Molly equals countdown’ hints at McCoy Tyner, but you quickly realise that the voicings have very modern in feel. I can however certainly imagine Kurt Rosenwinkel doing the tune. It is an extraordinary composition where the left hand continuously punctuates the flow with oblique accents. I was left wanting more than the single set and I certainly hope that we get to see Sean again on his next trip back to Australia.

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Accompanying Sean were Cameron MacArthur (bass) and Jason Orme (drums). Both accomplished musicians who quickly slotted into the challenges of supporting a world-class and highly inventive pianist.

The next artist up was David Berkman. He has been to New Zealand before and anyone who saw him last time would have jumped at the opportunity of seeing this top flight New York Pianist in action. There is a fluidity to his playing and above all an impeccable sense of timing. This hard-driving post bop fluidity and the big bluesy chords is what most characterises his work.

The Kiwi members of the quartet were Roger Manins (tenor), Olivier Holland (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums). Together they formed a powerhouse of inventiveness and Roger in particular seemed to benefit from this grouping. His solo’s were so incendiary as to cause gasps of surprise and from an audience who are used to such pyrotechnics. While we expect Rogers high wire acts he is always able to surprise us and this night saw him really on fire. David Berkman certainly knows how to amp up the tension and his ability to extol a horn player to reach deeper and deeper is impressive. He worked the room with as much enthusiasm as he would have done in a prime New York club and everyone there appreciated that commitment. This was the kind of gig where you sat back and let the sound wash over you, tapping your feet uncontrollably and yelling enthusiastically between numbers.

David Berkman

David Berkman

David Berkman’s repertoire was a well-balanced mix of his own compositions and some lessor known standards. During the gig he talked about his mentor, the much respected pianist Mulgrew Miller (who sadly passed away that very evening). He has worked with a wide variety of artists such as trumpeters Tom Harrell and Dave Douglas and his contribution to Jazz education is well-known. Having moved to New York some years ago he quickly settled into the routines of gigging, recording and teaching and since then he has been a fixture on the local scene. He travels extensively and is a Palmetto recording artist.

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The two pianists were very different, but both were amazing in their way. In David Berkman we heard the history of the post bop era and in Sean Wayland we glimpsed the future.

What: Sean Wayland and David Berkman Winter International Series.

Who: Sean Wayland (p) (leader) Cameron McArthur (b) Jason Orme (d). – David Berkman (p) (leader), Roger Manins (s), Oli Holland (b), Ron Samsom (d)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 29th May 2013

Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra – CJC Winter International Series 2013

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Travelling with an 18 piece jazz orchestra is an exercise in logistics that would confound military experts. Luckily this herculean task was assigned to Jazz musicians who have no idea about what is possible and impossible. As they have done for the past 10 years the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra (JMO) set out on tour, but this time, as if to tempt the fates, they decided to cross an ocean. The trip across the Tasman was certainly not without mishap, as one of the orchestra members had become ill at the airport and an urgent replacement was required. The first New Zealand concert was to begin in a matter of hours. I am unsure of just how much panic ensued, but the bands Director David Theak was tasked with locating a trumpeter. They required an excellent reader who could play some of the most difficult charts ever devised and with little or no rehearsal time.

It was guest conductor, ‘ringleader’ and composer Darcy James Argue (who is evidently also a magician) who proposed the solution. He quickly conjured up the brilliant New York based trumpet player Nadje Noordhuis who just happened to be attending a wedding in Australia. She had worked with Darcy for many years and was familiar with his work. Nadja changed her plans and flew to join the JMO in Auckland. I can only surmise that various music gods received generous offerings that day. IMG_7516 - Version 2

The ‘Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra‘ is one of the most valuable creative assets that Australia has on offer and since its inception 10 years ago it has picked up many scholarships and prizes. It is regarded as the best Jazz Orchestra in Australia and it has gained a solid international reputation. Because of the respect the orchestra garners it is now able to attract the best soloists, conductors, arrangers and composers. World acclaimed Jazz masters like John Hollenbeck and Maria Schneider are just two examples of guest arrangers invited to work with the JMO. While drawing upon a myriad of inspirational sources from offshore, the orchestra still maintains a strong focus on showcasing the best of Australian Artists. Recent programs have featured the works of Mike Nock and the New York based Australian born pianist Sean Wayland.

Our own Roger Manins plays tenor saxophone for the current JMO tour and he will appear as guest artist with them at the Melbourne Festival (with the incomparable and frequent poll winning Maria Schneider conducting). Roger is a typical self-effacing Kiwi male who seldom talks up his own achievements (I will happily take on that job). This is big news and he is to be congratulated. Better yet fly to Melbourne and enjoy the JMO with Roger and Maria.

The first concert was at the Kenneth Meyers Centre and I watched with interest as the various musicians about town tweeted words like ‘freaking amazing’ and ‘wow’. The main Auckland gig was on the next night at the Auckland Jazz & Blues Club located in the Point Chevalier Returned Services Association. This large rectangular space has acoustics that are often challenging for smaller bands but not so for the sonic blast of an 18 piece orchestra. By the time I turned up the venue was packed. Everyone there looked expectant, understanding that a rare treat was in store.

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The gig was split into two distinct halves with the first set featuring Sean Wayland’s music. I have long heard praise of Sean and to my shame I had not previously checked him out as thoroughly as I should have. He’s a revered figure on the Australian Jazz scene and with good reason. He often plays with the cream of New York musicians and his discography is jaw-droppingly impressive. Sean’s compositions have a particular ebb and flow that works well with an orchestra like this.  For all that, he is a friendly approachable guy and this easygoing manner communicates itself well to an audience. Sean has worked with the JMO before and it is not surprising that they invited him back as guest pianist, composer and arranger. IMG_7503 - Version 2

The second set featured the works of guest conductor Darcy James Argue who like Sean Wayland lives in Brooklyn. He has steadily been amassing tributes over recent years, first for his ‘Infernal Machines’ album and more recently for ‘Brooklyn Babylon’. Darcy James Argue describes himself variously as ringmaster, composer, arranger and head of a ‘Secret Society’. Dan Brown can’t hold candle to this guy, as he tells better stories and navigates the social media like a latter-day Machiavelli.

When Darcy was ushered onto the bandstand he emerged in true Secret Society fashion. Swirling out the shadows and giving the appearance of being 7 feet tall. My only disappointment was that he didn’t have a cape. According to rumours the Secret Society first aired their music in a small punk bar in Brooklyn, violating fire and safety regulations in the process. As with all the best secrets word soon leaked out and as time went by they performed at the Lincoln Centre and many other key venues. It must be troubling for a secret society to become so famous, but that is exactly what has happened. They are five-time winners of the DownBeat Critics Poll, a JJA best-of award, appearing in innumerable best-of-the-year lists, and being nominated for both GRAMMY and JUNO awards. IMG_7515 - Version 2

This is a composer who understands musical alchemy.  Under his pen and baton a new form of magic has emerged. The textures, orchestral voicings and raw energy carry the listener to places unimagined. It feels fresh and exciting, but somehow (and perhaps this is the essence of the magic) the past is still evident in ways that are never hackneyed. Warmth and vibrancy vie with starkness, gentle and raucous coexist. These are the sounds of a big city in the twenty-first century, but a big city constantly examining its roots. It is hard to adequately describe the impact of this, but a careful listener will discern hints of Copeland, Rock music, Thad Jones and even Cage. More importantly they are drawn forever into the strangely accessible but deceptively complex world of Darcy James Argue and his co-conspirators.

Darcy James Argue has woven us a convincing narrative and his multi media smarts are an integral part of this journey. His websites lead listeners inexorably to the music in pied piper fashion, where they are held fast. He is positioned exactly where he should be, at the cutting edge of new orchestral Jazz.

I sat down with Sean Wayland after to gig and watched with interest as he ordered a schooner. “We don’t have those in New Zealand love” said the barmaid.”What do you call a big glass of beer then?” asked Sean. “A glass” she said. Aussies abbreviate everything (a barbecue is a ‘barbi’ and Melbourne is ‘Melbs’) but this is the only time that I have seen an Australian out-abbreviated by a Kiwi. Sean is an easy guy to talk to and from him I gained a number of interesting insights into the performance. “Was Darcy’s material difficult to play”, I asked him. “Yes” he said, “Almost impossible. To do it real justice it needs to be played a lot and then memorised”. Sean’s piano parts sounded just fine to my ears, he is after all well-known for his work with unique harmony and rhythm.

Where: Point Chevalier RSA, Auckland New Zealand – brought to you by the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), The Auckland Jazz and Blues Club and Pete McGregor Entertainment on the 28th May 2013

Who: The Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra with Sean Wayland and Darcy James Argue