The UK born Mark Donlon is an internationally renowned musician who joined the New Zealand School of Music as a senior lecturer in Jazz Piano in 2013. He has previously appeared at Auckland’s CJC, but never with a quintet. The small ensemble format is clearly a forte as it revealed his many skills. After hearing his recent recording and attending the CJC gig it was evident to me that this particular project hit a sweet spot. What we heard on Wednesday was something special. An evocative programme built around stories of displaced peoples.
There is no separating a good musician from their musical origins and Donlon wears his origins on his compositional sleeve. I am not referring to nationality but to something more ethereal. That wellspring of melodic and harmonic invention that bubbles from the musical homeland and feeds sonic identity. If I didn’t pick it up before I certainly did this time, an unmistakable sound. A sound manifest in John Taylor, John Surman and expat Canadian, Kenny Wheeler – perhaps it is strongest in Guildhall musicians. Wheeler was referenced several times and early into the first set the quintet played a superb version of his ‘Kind Folk’. Donlon’s original compositions, the rest, also capturing that very English and often wistful vibe. That and the slick head arrangements setting the tone – perfect vehicles for the tales he told.
This type of composition is sometimes characterised as sad (or dark), but I hear more than that in Donlon (or Wheeler). I prefer the word melancholy in its Shakespearian sense. “A melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, which by rumination, wraps me in the most humorous sadness”. Shakespeare knew that emotion is seldom one dimensional.
The music also speaks of human dignity in the face of oppression, the titles traversing the sweep of history – of personal loss. There’s ‘Aleppo’, a lovely tune about a tragic city, trampled under the boots of sectarian and superpower violence – this, aptly told by juxtaposing dissonance and sweetness. There’s ‘Windrush’, the story of the Jamaican immigrants and their history of mistreatment – more recently at the hands of Brexiteer Amber Rudd. Then there’s ‘Zanj’, the old word for an African slave. While the topic may be grim, the musical treatment is not devoid of hope. Good composers do not resile from such difficult topics; they aim to touch our hearts, offer up hope, and this did.
That the album is so good is not surprising, given the New York heavyweights on board; Alex Sipiagin and Seamus Blake for starters. Appearing at the CJC was a Wellington lineup; Mark Donlon (piano), Louisa Williamson (saxophone), Luca Sturney (guitar), Lance Philip (drums) and Seth Boy (bass). It’s been a while since I heard Louisa Williamson and these days, she is everything that she is hyped to be. A stunning performer with a silky tone and a plethora of coherent ideas flowing from her horn. Her use of dynamics is minimal, but this is not a deficit. She conveys her message through skillful phrasing and the delivery of imaginative lines. I had not seen Luca Sturney before but his musical abilities are unmistakeable (what a nice sound and what solid solos). The same with Seth Boy. Lastly, there is Lance Philip, who along with Donlon, is the veteran in the lineup. An incredibly able drummer who covers all styles and who lifts any performance. Donlon was obviously thrilled to have him on the tour, and no wonder.
The track I have posted on YouTube is from the CJC gig and titled ‘Zanj’ – ‘The NY album is available from fuzzymoonrecords.co.uk or from Mark Donlon, New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University Wellington – he has a facebook page – The gig took place at Backbeat, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Auckland, 8 May 2019.
Album: Mark Donlon (piano, compositions), Alex Sipiagin (trumpet, flugelhorn), Seamus Blake(saxophone), Boris Kozlov (Bass), Donald Edwards (drums).
Auckland gig: Mark Donlon (piano), Louisa Williamson (saxophone), Luca Sturney (guitar), Seth Boy (bass), Lance Philip (drums)