Tubular 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. On 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’.
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.
Crystal 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.
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