I am writing this on International Jazz Day and reflecting on the diversity of improvised music occurring in my city of Auckland, New Zealand. We have straight ahead Jazz, free improvised music and everything in between. For me a livable community is better defined by its relationship to the arts than by any other measure. Having venues like ‘The Wine Cellar’ and the ‘CJC (Creative Jazz Club)’ is at the heart of this relationship, for that is where artistic experimentation and community interactions occur.
There is a tendency to compartmentalise music and it is the way humans like to view the world. These subdivisions are sometimes unhelpful but in the end the meanings we invest in the descriptors are largely subjective. I agree with the premise of semiotician, writer (and experimental Jazz liner notes author) Umberto Ecco. His viewpoint is that humans feel compelled make endless lists in order to plot their way through a chaotic world. It is a way of remembering ancient pathways, while embarking upon new and often scary ones. In the world of improvised music the riskier path is always taken and the charts are abandoned at some point. This music embraces the chaos and seeks out new patterns and motifs, however fleeting. Using charts (whether Braxton like or traditional notation) the form is merely the starting point. In this way both ancient & future are embraced.
The K’Party Spoilers of Utopia (formerly T’Party Spoilers of Utopia) is a nonet led by vibist, tenor horn player and musical explorer John Bell. His vision has been the guiding force for this extraordinary grouping of musicians and it is respect for him that spurs them on. I have known John for less than a year and I find him an immensely likeable and down to earth person. Beneath that matter of fact exterior lurks a keen mind, teaming with profound musical insights. I have read and re-read his exegesis on the Albert Ayler legacy and his views on alternative music are well-developed and worthy of examination. Like all musicians he has many facets to his character. When I asked him recently how long he had been a musician he casually replied, “quite a long while, but at one point I abandoned music for motorcycle racing”. “Do you still race motorbikes” I asked incredulously. “Definitely not he said”. I wanted to probe him further on this fascinating topic but the conversation turned back to music. On reflection I cannot think of a better career path for an avant-garde musician than motor cycle racing. Both are high-wire acts. I am wondering now if I imagined the whole exchange. Time will tell.
I’ve been aware of the ‘Spoilers’ for a year or more and have seen them play on a number of occasions. The collective began as a vehicle to explore Albert Ayler’s legacy and for a while you could hear brassy interpretations of the ‘The Truth Goes Marching In’ or other compositions by Ayler. There is however no such thing as a cover band of free Jazz offerings and band was always centred around John’s own compositions or his interpretations of Salvation Army and various evangelical hymns. In more recent times the repertoire has evolved to include compositions by band members. With John on hand to arrange, contribute his own charts and encourage, the project has finally been shaped into the ‘Spoilers of Utopia’ album. There are so many good compositions and vignettes in this music that singling out the individual musicians for praise would be a Herculean task. I can only congratulate them all and hope that there is more to come.
I have seen the band described as the purveyors of ‘apocalyptic’ sounds or ‘tongue in cheek’. I am not so sure about that, as there is is both structure and chaos in their music. The familiar sits comfortably with the unruly and the sweet with the sour. That sounds more like modern life than doom and gloom. Out of the completely free you will hear snatches of raw beauty and just as quickly the beauty dissolves into dissonance. I would call that a Zen koan – Life is a deadly serious stupidly happy joke.
There is no crying declamatory saxophone voice on this album (as there would be with an Ayler recording). This is a brassy sound closer to the military bands and to the street bands of the church militant. Any analysis of New Zealand’s colonial history will reveal a proliferation of such bands. Add in a Moog, squeeze horns and a skittering electric guitar and you have arrived at the Spoilers doorstep, Jazz April 2013. This is a manifestation of avant-garde New Zealand.
The Wine Cellar (Vitamin ‘S’) is a place for experimental and improvised music and under the watchful eye of out-guru Jeff Henderson it flourishes against all commercial odds. It is like the CJC located in a basement and in this case, deep in the bowels of Karangahape Road. Visit the website and call by some night. The music is can be utterly ‘free’ or follow a more structured pathway. It is always experimental though and improvisation is at its core.
John Bell left New Zealand for Korea two days after the album release gig, our loss. He will be sorely missed in New Zealand but the music goes marching on. We have a lot to hear from his band mates yet and I am already picking up whispers of new projects.
Where: The Wine Cellar – Vitamin ‘S’ St Kevin’s Arcade off K’Road
Who: K’Party Spoilers of Utopia – led by John Bell (vibes, tenor horn, misc sounds), Finn Scholes (trumpet, flugal horn), Ben Zilber (trombone), Don McGlashan (euphonium), Neil Watson (guitar), Owen Melhuish (tuba), Darren Hannah (double bass), Chris O’Connor (drums), Kingsley Melhuish (trumpet, flugal horn, trombone, tuba) + Cameron Allen (Moog), Gerard Crewdson (trombones), Jacob Unuia (pau), L J Unuia (pate), Tua Meti (pati)
This has been a Jazz April gig