Australian Musicians, New Zealand Jazz Gigs, Piano Jazz

McAll @ Freida Margolis

Barney Freidas (3)The pleasure of experiencing great music in small venues is inestimable. Sure, we love it when the famous cats blow through town, rush to get our tickets for the town hall concerts, pay the hefty price tag gladly and listen; watch the tiny figures way, way down on stage.  I have attended many such concerts over the years and regarded them among life’s high points, but now I am not so sure. As great as these concerts are and as amazing as the visiting musicians are, the experience is filtered through layers of complexity and as a result, one essential ingredient is often missing, that feeling of warm intimacy.

I have heard road-wise musicians talk of a virtuous feedback loop, the way artist and audience feed off each other until the music becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. Large civic venues are by their very nature redactive and the end result is often a performer facing a passive sea of listeners. Anyone who has been tapped on the shoulder during a performance and been told by an usher to sit still will get my point. Sitting still and mute is difficult for seasoned Jazz lovers. We know when to hold our breath and we know not to chatter, but we also understand when to vocalise our joy or when to exhort a soloist to greater heights. And bodies will sway and feet will tap – that’s the fine point of engagement. When the music is visceral it radiates a life force and even at the most fundamental level of existence, atoms collide and shift. If it lives it moves.Barney Freidas (4)

Some of us, the lucky ones, have experienced an artist of international stature performing in a small cosy club. If it’s a pianist and if a very good piano is located in the venue, then it’s a recipe for unbounded enjoyment. A few days ago Barney McAll played at a sold-out venue at the Wellington International Jazz Festival. Thanks to his close friend Jonathan Crayford he stopped off for a day in Auckland on his return journey. There had been some discussion about this possibility a few months ago and JC assured me that it would happen. Because I had a prior warning I waited and when the tickets appeared I swooped like a hawk. Only the lucky few got to attend this gig.

The eye-catching online notification featured an attractive sketch and a poster which read; ‘Barney McAll plays Gospel solo piano at Freida Margolis, limited tickets available’.  In the fine print was the word, Steinway. Together this spelt seismic. When you hear McAll you experience more than just music, you experience dreamscapes and multiple histories. The first thing to grasp about McAll is that he can reference many styles and genres and while this is disconcerting to some, it is an essential part of his output. Cutting edge contemporary improvised music, Orchestral Jazz, alternative popular music, standards, soul, free or Gospel. While his projects can feature any of the above styles, each is laid down with the utmost integrity and each bears his unmistakable hallmark.

Barney Freidas (2)

What we heard were mostly Gospel hymns – the sort you would hear in a Harlem church. They were hymns, but not presented in the way you’d hear them in a New Zealand or Australian church. They were improvisational vehicles and the voicings of some old-time Jazz greats shone through. I have heard such voicings from the likes of Hank Jones and this is hardly surprising. Musicians like Jones came up through the black gospel church experience. What is uncommon, is to hear this from a white Australian musician.  His eight years of playing in American Gospel churches left its mark of authenticity on him.

During the night he invited Jonathan Crayford and Bella Kalolo to join him. Crayford accompanied on piano, free improvising, while McAll played an unusual guitar-like instrument, imparting a sitar sound or prepared piano sound. Kalolo was obviously delighted to be accompanied by McAll and even though she was unamplified and therefore low volume the two of them had strong chemistry. While they approach the tunes differently, Gospel is clearly something both artists understand.

McAll also played Necter Spur from his ‘Mooroolbark’ album and ‘The Nock Code’ from his recent ‘Hearing the Blood’ album.  Both albums garnered multiple awards and significant praise. Unencumbered by a band, he ranged freely over the numbers and found exquisite asides to explore in-depth. This was music to be experienced from three metres away. This was a love letter to the classic Steinway ‘D’ series and Freida Margolis was the perfect backdrop. I had mounted the camera up high and it was surrounded by tiles which brightened the sound – but that piano – those tunes and those musicians found the magic and gave us a gig to remember.

Barney McAll (Steinway D, stringed instrument), Bella Kalolo (vocals), Jonathan Crayford (Steinway D) – for McAll albums visit Extra Celestial Arts on Bandcamp.

Advertisements
Ambient Improvised, experimental improvised music, Piano Jazz

‘Composure’ (Alan Brown)

a1384163851_16.jpgAs Alan Brown moves in new directions, he is leaving some extraordinary musical documents in his wake. Hot on the heels of his recent Alargo collaborations he releases a second solo album, ‘Composure’. Again, this is an ambient album and like Alargo it is meticulously crafted. It is a solo piano album but much more. Here, the minutiae of the sonic world are revealed and important ambient sounds which are often overlooked.  In our busy modern lives, we drown in sonic overload. Here in Composure, the very essence of sound is explored, nurtured, curated, given wings.  There is an incredible floating quality to these tracks and the effects are otherworldly, but this is a world beginning at Brown’s fingertips. A world that exists inside a Steinway D piano, an empty concert chamber; in places overlooked. There are faint sounds of the street present and other ‘found’ environmental sounds. These are present as breakthrough sound, loops or drones, adding texture and depth.

It is tempting to think that the pieces arose from written charts or pre-existing motifs, but they didn’t. This is spontaneous composition and formed in reaction to the sounds and the atmospheres of the moment. With the exception of the Scape drone effect on ‘Form of a Dream’, all other effects have been added after the exploration. The material in this album was recorded at the same time as ‘Silent Observer’ and this is a worthy successor. This music has no preconditions attached and the listener should engage in whatever way they wish. There are incalculable benefits from slowing our lives down and when we do we become deeper listeners, more nuanced in our approach to the frenetic world about us.

I have added the first track ‘Form of a Dream’ as a Bandcamp sound clip. I urge everyone to set up a free Bandcamp account – I do much of my listening there. You can buy physical albums, get high (or low) fidelity downloads, or stream. The artists also get a greater share than with other platforms. The Composure album is available from alanbrown.co.nz  or from alanbrown.bandcamp.com

 

 

Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, Piano Jazz

Neil Watson gig / Crystal Choi gig

Ihjt

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

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Interview, Jazz April, Piano Jazz

Jonathan Crayford – Making Pianos Sing

Jonathan Crayford Interview  (part one)

Jonathan Crayford 071 (2) When the luck runs your way, an interview with a musician will mysteriously transform itself into something more. If you know how to read the signals and respond appropriately, you find yourself traversing musical galaxies; places where words and musical ideas merge. I was acutely aware of this when I interviewed Jonathan Crayford recently. He is the ideal person to spend time with if you like to explore the improbable connections between seemingly unrelated things. It was an interview where the rhythms of the moment guided what we discussed and the best part of a day flew by before I knew it. This cerebral world is where Crayford prefers to live. He is perpetually on the road, dreaming up and shaping musical projects as he goes. His life is truly the troubadour’s life. As I probed him for insights, one episode in particular threw light on how serendipity and happenstance can guide him.

While living in Paris a few years ago, he reached the conclusion that the time had come to move on. Around this time he met a Catalan photographer and she invited him to perform at a Catalonian arts festival. When he asked how well it paid, she replied that they had no budget, but offered him a jar of marmite. Impulsively he packed up his belongings and moved to Spain. That began a fruitful creative collaboration that led to the photographer and Crayford doing gigs together in a number of European cities like Vienna.Jonathan Crayford 073I asked him why this type of project drew him so strongly. “I’ve been travelling for years and it’s the excitement of new projects and the risks associated with being in unfamiliar places that lures me. I like being in a new place, an exotic place, somewhere outside of my life’s experience. It is like a rebirth. New loves, new sounds new smells, new food and a new vantage point from which view life. The grist of creativity comes directly out of this”.

I had recently attended his concert at the Te Uru Waitakere Gallery where he was one of the featured artists in the ‘Black Rainbow’ concert series. I asked him about that and the carved piano, but as we talked the topic shifted to his quest for the perfect piano. His sense of reverence when talking pianos was palpable and he needed no encouragement to elaborate. “The acoustics of the room worked well for solo piano and the instruments bones are high-end Steinway. Here is a paradox though; the musician in me is always uncomfortable with carved or painted pianos. I understand that this is a wonderful piece of art, but the piano is already the ultimate piece of furniture. It is perfect in form and highly functional. Any alterations or adjustments should serve the sound. 

Pianos sing for me and I can hear when pianos are sad. I feel their sadness and work with it, but it still troubles me”.

He talked of pianos so reverently and I wanted more on this topic, so I asked him about some of his favourite types of piano; the special ones. “I find the Australian made Stuart & Sons piano extremely interesting. With such a presence of upper harmonics you really need a different approach to playing. That was my impression of the one I played. A wonderfully crafted instrument. A few months ago I travelled to Australia to meet up with Barney McAll who is back from New York. He is currently artist in residence for a year, having been awarded a Glanville-Hicks residency. They have a custom made Stuart & Sons piano there. It’s a wonderful instrument. Of course I love the high-end Steinways, Bosendorfers and Fazioli. I have also played a wonderful Schimmel.

(Note) The Stuart & Sons Piano is innovative, a breakthrough in mechanical design. The piano has more keys and possesses amazing harmonic accuracy at the high end. No one has managed to change the acoustics and range of a piano in a very long time. Many pianists who have played the instrument claim that Stewart and Sons have done just that.

I couldn’t resist teasing this theme out further; wanting his reaction to a strange story of piano destruction, so I asked. “I recently saw a short film of a man playing a nice Steinway piano beside the Red Sea. ‘Red Sea, Dead Sea’ it was called and I suppose it was an allegory for the conflict in the Middle East. After five minutes a hooded man appeared out of nowhere and started smashing the piano with a sledgehammer. What do you think of artists who smash a piano to make a political statement?”

”A momentary look of surprise crossed his face as he pondered on what I’d said. “What is that destruction shit about man? I just don’t get it. The point of a piano is to be played and played well. Played by someone who understands what a piano is about. I once saw a pianist slowly, respectfully and carefully dismantling a piano at a concert. As each piece was removed he would tap it or pluck it. Each section had a very distinct sound, a note, resonance. This was a deconstruction, but I understood that because it was an exploration of the instruments capability, not an act of wanton destruction. That piano was still singing. That particular act of dismantling was a musical chart”. Jonathan Crayford 072

Smashing pianos for political ends is definitely not Crayford’s thing.

During the afternoon we traversed everything from Pythagoras to planetary formation. The relationship between harmonic intervals and physical objects was especially fascinating to him, as was higher mathematics. “I will compose a piece based upon prime numbers one day”, he said. He also talked of constructing a new ‘mode’ map. His love for stories about quirky historical characters and for mathematics came together in his latest album ‘Dark Light’. ‘Galois Candle’ tells of a hapless mathematical genius and his struggle for recognition. The poignancy of the tale is reflected in every note. I have heard this played in a trio setting and solo. It is sublime either way.

Crayford’s ‘Dark Light’ album was a finalist in the New Zealand 2015 Vodafone music awards. The album is simply stunning and it deserves to be heard more. Crayford feels that the album has legs and he hopes that it has a way to run yet. These days it is not the quality of the music, but distribution and exposure problems that hold an album back. This album certainly deserves wider recognition.Jonathan Crayford 071On April 15th Crayford returned to the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), but this time without bass or drums. The gig was billed as ‘solo piano’ with special guest. Roger Manins joining him for the final numbers of the second set. This was a first for the CJC as the club has never hosted a solo piano gig before. Interestingly a slightly higher entry fee was placed on the door, but far from deterring people it signalled that something special was to occur. You could have heard a pin drop during the performance. This audience really listened and they were amply rewarded for their attentiveness. This highlights the growing sophistication of CJC audiences and above all it demonstrates the deep respect that we have for Crayford as a performer.

I have seen Crayford perform many times and his approach to performance is to step free of ego. He described it to me as ‘diving into the sound’. Crayford treats performance like a Zen monk treats a ‘Koan’. His musical puzzles are not solved by wrestling with them, but by absorption, by letting go. Living in a musical moment devoid of superficial baggage. While a modernist in his approach, he also touches upon something timeless. Perhaps Crayford is best described as a cosmic troubadour?

Solo performances are high wire acts and the freedom afforded by the format allows an artist to take us where they may. We heard probing thoughtful interpretations of seldom-heard Jazz compositions, original pieces and compositions from unlikely sources. One moment we were at the edge of the modern classical repertoire and at other times following the fabulous, choppy, stride-infected swing of Monk. Nothing sounded out of place and everything was explored with the same vigour. Crayford’s environmentally referencing composition ‘Earth Prayer’ was simply profound. The musical narrative enveloped us in its utter clarity. Such was its impact that time stood still while audience, piano and artist seemed to breathe as one.Jonathan Crayford 072 (1)The duo numbers with Roger Manins also worked well. These are master musicians and they know how to make the most of freedom and space. When a piano and tenor saxophone perform in duo, certain unique opportunities arise; the musicians must be acutely aware of nuances and the subtleties of interplay. What we heard was a deftly woven tapestry of sound, a respectful satisfying interaction. The duos started with a burner and ended with the perennial favourite ‘The ‘Nearness of You’ (Washington/Carmichael). During the last number there was a flood of noise from the upstairs bar. In spite of that the audience yelled for more; wishing that the gig could go on for ever.

(Part Two of this post to be posted later)

Who: Jonathan Crayford (piano) – guest Roger manins

Where: Interview in Waitakere – Solo Piano gig at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 15th April 2015 – Solo Piano, Te Uru Waitakere Gallery.2015voter-button

2015JAvertLogo150x287