CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, Post Bop

James Ryan – Jazz without a parachute

James Ryan is a Sydney based tenor player and he has appeared at the CJC before.  On Wednesday nights gig he fronted a trio of saxophone, drums and bass.   In configurations like this where chordal instruments are absent, a band is taking a more adventurous route.   Guitars, pianos, horn-sections and jazz orchestras provide a safety net for horn soloists and in addition they tend to fill in much of the soundscape with colour and a variety of textures.  Without this underpinning, clean open spaces can be revealed and the bones of melodies can be unraveled or looked at afresh in their raw beauty.    This is jazz without a parachute.

The precedent for such trios goes back a long way.   Gerry Mulligan came close with his famous piano-less quartet of the 1950’s, but the addition of another horn (Chet Baker or Bobby Brookmeyer) allowed for chords and complex counterpoint.  The most notable historic piano-less trios were Sonny RollinsWay Out West‘, Lee Konitz, ‘Motion’ and the drummer led Elvin Jones ‘Ultimate’.    There are many others and I should also mention the Max RoachDizzy Gillespie duos with just trumpet and drums.  Our own Roger Manins has also explored saxophone trios and his well received album ‘Hip Flask’ is a notable example.

I did not hear James the last time he appeared, but I was soon to be impressed by what was on offer.  His choice of band-mates proved to be fortuitous as Tom Botting (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums) rose to the challenge with enthusiasm.   In this blue-sky environment each artist knew what needed to be done and more importantly what must be avoided.  The was no overplaying and the flow of musical ideas was engaging.

James introduced the first set by playing solo for a number of bars and we could hear immediately that he was brim full of interesting ideas.  This was a good way to open because when the bass and drums came in, their addition filled the space with possibilities.  The fourth tune of the night ‘Micky B’ (Ryan) was a good example of this interplay.   In this case the tune had been set up by the bass and it soon developed into a hard-driving bluesy exploration of the theme.   James drove deeper and deeper into the changes and freed of the need to avoid piano or guitar, he took the music where he wanted it to go.   While James took care of business Tom Botting found just the right responses and Ron Samsom showed us again why he is a master of the drum kit.

After a number of interesting originals had been performed the band switched seamlessly to the well-known standard ‘You and The Night And The Music”.    James explained afterward that this had not been on the set list, but because Tom had quoted from it during an earlier bass solo he added it on impulse.   It is when we hear a standard that  we can form the strongest views and make comparisons.    The audience will know where the tune has gone before and be interested to see just where this band is taking it.   This particular exploration was inventive without being disrespectful.   It had an element of surprise in the familiar and that is what the best Jazz is about.

As is so often the case when Ron Samsom is on the bandstand, the percussion work was extraordinary.   His use of mallets and his inventiveness riveted the audience again and again.   He can play tightly in the pocket or with an understated but completely engaging looseness.  We saw him as more than a drummer in this set up.  He was an instrumentalist capable of filling any space.

There was one free number during the night and it was a riot.    James announced that he would play a tune of his titled ‘Rocket No 7’.    This was an homage to Sun Ra and his much admired composition ‘Rocket No 9’.   A few bars in James just let rip and the band quickly followed him into what were obviously unchartered waters.  This decoupling from the changes was soon evident and the organic freedom took us on a wild and delightful ride.   While the music was as free as a skylark it was never directionless.    Both band and audience were smiling at the end and everyone in the room knew that they had experienced something special.

After the number James wiped the sweat from his brow and pulled the mike towards him.   “That was nothing like ‘Rocket No 7” he said to our delight.

As with many of the Australian visitors we look forward to his return.

Concerts - visiting Musicians, Review, USA and Beyond

Sonny Rollins: Way out West (Pacific)

Sonny Rollins
Image via Wikipedia

Back in January New Zealand Jazz lovers had been delighted to learn that Sonny Rollins would be in Wellington.   This band was the sole International act performing in the (temporarily truncated) Wellington Jazz Festival.  Sonny’s band is comprised of Bob Cranshaw (eb), Kobe Watkins (d) Sammy Figueroa (perc) Peter Bernstein (g).      As there are very few of the great 50’s tenor players remaining among us, my friends and I knew that we had to fly to Wellington to catch the act and had booked early.    It is lucky we did because the seats for the city’s Michael Fowler Center sold out quickly.    In an already busy Jazz year, the Sonny Rollins concert was a headline event in the New Zealand Jazz Calendar and as Sonny had turned 80 recently this was not an opportunity to be squandered.

When the band came on stage there was an initial cheer and then a slight hush as Sonny emerged – bent over and shuffling painfully.  We collectively held our breath as he shuffled to the microphone and uttered a few words.  Then a deafening roar of approval went up as the 80 year old put the golden saxophone to his lips.    It was as if a miracle had occurred because he appeared to grow in stature and from the very first note he was rejuvenated.    He played with a force and virility that would have been surprising in a 20 year old let alone an 80 year old. This was the Sonny of old.   The Saxophone Colossus of Brooklyn Bridge fame was again defying the gods of music; mocking them for trying silence him with age.

The band launched straight into the first number ‘D.Cherry’ which was hard driving and heavily accented by the powerful rhythm section.   Allowing only a 10 second break for the applause they ripped into the second number and apart from  a short introduction well into the concert there were few song announcements (nor an intermission).  This was the Sonny Rollins who had earned immeasurable respect over a lifetime of performance; powerfully taking the music to the edge of the possible.  Perhaps not always a pretty sound but absolutely typical of his vigorous, relentless improvising.  Sonny goes straight to the heart of a tune and then mines it for every ounce of meaning as he tells his story.  I recall a friend saying that his playing is like a dog gnawing on a bone until every morsel is gone.

The band had quickly hit their stride and were soon playing in lockstep.  What could not be denied though was that Sonny was more than the sum of the bands parts.   The versatile Bob Cranshaw is a well known bass player and he lived up to expectations.   The other musician I knew and rated was guitarist Peter Bernstein.   Peter has recorded as a leader a number of times and he is a regular fixture around the New York scene – especially with organ/guitar/drum trio’s in Manhattan clubs like ‘Smoke‘.  I would have liked Peter brought further forward in the mix, as his driving powerful lines are well worth hearing, but competing against the powerful drummer and the well miked-up percussionist was left to Sonny.    His powerhouse tenor sound rode over the top of the two with apparent ease.   The standout number for me was the ‘Annie get your gun’ (Irving Berlin) show tune ‘They say its wonderful’; which was…. wonderful.  Tiring after two energised hours; Sonny said goodnight and launched into ‘Don’t stop the carnival’, which sometimes quoted from his legendary calypso ‘St Thomas’.  The set list from the two hours plus concert was as follows: D. Cherry, Patanjali, Blue Gardenia, Serenade, Newark News, They Say It’s Wonderful, Tenor Madness and Don’t Stop the Carnival.

Sour note: As grateful as I was to Wellington for hosting Sonny, I am still annoyed at the funders for canceling the fuller Wellington International Jazz Festival this year.   I hope they realise how wonderful the last one was and never make that mistake again.   Rugby should never be allowed to negate such an important music festival – sport and music can co-exist if allowed to.

Wellington concert Sonny Rollins
Sonny in full flight Wellington concert