‘Alchemy’ Album Review

Alchemy2 (1)Have you ever heard one of New Zealand’s iconic pop songs and wondered how it would sound reimagined as Jazz? The journey from popular song to Jazz piece is a well-trodden path. Many tunes that we now refer to as ‘Jazz standards’ began their life as tunes written for broadway musicals or for the popular music market. For a tune to successfully cross that divide it needs to be well constructed and to lend itself to reharmonisation. With ‘Alchemy’, this elusive symmetry is realised.

In the late twentieth century, classic Beatles tunes or those of Michael Jackson, Prince and Stevie Wonder were effortlessly adapted as Jazz vehicles. If you hear Uri Caine, Brad Mehldau, Herbie Hancock or the Kiwi Jazz pianist Jonathan Crayford playing ‘Blackbird’ you might conclude that Blackbird was written with a Jazz pianist in mind. These crossovers are a tribute to the composer and to the transformational skills of arranging Jazz Musicians. Alchemy2 (3)

A few years ago the award-winning New Zealand writer/director/producer Mark Casey embarked on an ambitious project to recast a number of New Zealand’s best-loved pop songs as Jazz tunes. It was a significant and perhaps a risky undertaking but gradually the project gathered momentum. In mid-December, ‘Alchemy’ was released and immediately, it rose up the NZ music charts. This is a significant achievement but it is not down to Casey alone. His masterstroke was engaging leading New Zealand Jazz Pianist Kevin Field as the Musical Director. Field is not only a gifted Jazz Pianist and acknowledged Warner recording artist, but his skills as an arranger and vocal accompanist are beyond question. Creative New Zealand came to the party and backed the proposal.

As the project moved forward a variety of Kiwi Jazz musicians were approached, some working in New York, most local, and one by one they came aboard. When the album was about to be recorded, I was asked by Field and Casey if I would be interested in witnessing the recording process. I was. I seldom pass up a chance to become a fly-on-the-wall during recording sessions and this project fascinated me. Being an embedded observer in such situations is always intriguing. It affords a writer the opportunity to gain insights that would otherwise be invisible. As the musicians turned up to rehearsals and to recording day there was a palpable sense of enthusiasm. No one questioned Fields guidance as he tweaked the charts and made suggestions. And any sense of disconnect between the pop and Jazz world evaporated swiftly. This was not pop Jazzed up. It was Jazz, and although there were reharmonisations and Jazz rhythms, the integrity of original tunes remained intact.

In the recording studio were Auckland’s premier Jazz and Soul singers and a selection of experienced Jazz instrumentalists. On vocals were Caitlin Smith, Lou’ana Whitney, Chelsea Prastiti, Allana Goldsmith, Bex Peterson and Marjan Nelson. On piano and keyboards was Keven Field, Roger Manins was on tenor saxophone, Richard Hammond on electric and acoustic bass, Michael Howell on acoustic and electric guitar, Ron Samsom and Stephen Thomas on drums and percussion. In addition, there were two special guests, Michael Booth (trumpet) and Nathan Haines (soprano saxophone). This was serious firepower and thanks to the arrangements, all well deployed. The NY based ex-pat bass player Matt Penman had arranged tracks 7 & 12 and Marjan co-arranged tracks 4 & 8 with Field. Alchemy2

There are six vocalists on the album and they sing two tunes each. Careful thought had obviously been given to who would sing each song because the strengths of the individual vocalists were well matched to the tunes. For example, the warm but wistful lyricism of Chelsea Prastiti paired with ‘I’m glad I’m not a Kennedy’ (Shona Laing), the heartfelt reflectiveness of Caitlin Smith with ‘I hope I never’ (Tim Finn) or the engaging bell-like clarity of Marjan singing ‘Brown girl’ (Aradhna Patel). Together the musicians delivered something unique. This is a project which works and the more you listen to it the more you are beguiled. It is Kiwiana and it could be the perfect soundtrack for your summer.

‘Alchemy’ the album is available in New Zealand stores or from online sources. 

Louisa Williamson Quintet

Louisa Williamson (1)Louisa Williamson is a gifted young tenor saxophonist who has visited Auckland on previous occasions. This time, and for the first time, she visited as a bandleader, showcasing her beautiful compositions. I have always admired her tone and improvisational abilities, but this was a step up. Freed from the comfort of a band she knew well, she cast herself among an array of experienced Auckland musicians. Stephen Thomas on drums, Tom Dennison on bass and Michael Howell on guitar. The only Wellingtonian (besides Williamson) was pianist George Maclaurin and together as a band they delivered. This was engaging straight-ahead Jazz. 

In the history of this music, only a handful of female tenor or baritone saxophonists have received their due. If Williamson keeps playing like this she will surely inspire others and that is how the music grows. She has already come to international attention when she became the first New Zealander to join the JM Jazz World Orchestra in 2016. She is at present working towards a Masters in composition at the NZSM. After hearing her compositions on this date, the outcome should prove interesting. Her tunes possess an appealing melodicism while underpinned by an unfussy harmonic cushion. It is post-bop mainstream but there is nothing stale about it.  Afterwards, a band member from among the Auckland pick-ups remarked how well the charts were constructed.Louisa Williamson

I have put up the first tune from the first set titled ‘Slightly run-down’.  A tune where the underlying motifs are opened up as the theme develops. It is a story with a beginning, middle and ending and it is told without artifice. Everything felt in balance, the short phrase of arco bass during a changeup, the staccato restatement of the theme on the guitar, and above all the horns careful parsing of the melody.

The keyboardist Maclaurin was familiar with the leader’s tunes and consequently, he was the perfect harmonic anchor point. He also delivered some nice solos. The Auckland contingent of Howell on guitar, Dennison on upright bass and Stephen Thomas on drums took no time in establishing their credentials. I was particularly happy to see Dennison on the bandstand as he is seldom seen at the club these days. A fine bass player who always finds the best notes; a melodicist and a musician who has an impeccable feel for time. Howell and Thomas we see regularly and both are deservedly popular with audiences. I look forward to Williamson’s continued journey as she is learning to show more of herself. Being the leader, she spoke and told stories and I hope she does more of that. Jazz is at its best when it shows some emotion and in live performance, the artist’s engagement with an audience is the X factor lifting the music ever higher.

Louisa Williamson Quintet: Louisa Williamson (tenor saxophone, compositions), George Maclaurin (keyboards), Michael Howell (guitar), Tom Dennison (upright bass), Stephen Thomas (guitar). The gig was at Anthology for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 25 September 2019Louisa

Stephen Thomas Electric Band

Thomas 2 (1).jpgThe history of music is the history of instrument development and from the earliest of times, musicians have expanded the reach of their instruments. The mother of instruments, Al’ Oud was first documented 3500 years ago, but documenting the development of the drum is a nebulous task. It almost certainly arose in Africa and along the way it has undergone a multitude of modifications. On Wednesday there was another waypoint along the continuum under the forward-looking beats of Stephen Thomas. Thomas is a gifted drummer and percussionist and in his hands, the instrument takes on a new life by transcending the mundane. The gig arose out of his last years Masters recital and the focus was on extended technique; combining physical drum rhythms, electronics via a drum pad, prepared drum heads and samples. 

Improvisers are the masters of extended technique, but even so, it is comparatively rare to hear these effects applied to drums, winds or reeds in Jazz. The most obvious examples occurred during the 70’s fusion era, but post 70s Shorter and Harris, who carved a credible path, only a brave few have followed. In my view, it requires experienced musicians to do this well and Stephen Thomas is well qualified to realise this project. Done badly it can look like a botched attempt to blur technique deficiencies. Done well it is an opening into a brave new world and another set of tools to build on what has gone before.

True to label, The Stephen Thomas Electric Band was wired and utilised effects, including the horn section. There were various configurations from sextet to duo and each configuration teased out a particular facet of the interesting compositions. The full line up was: drums (+ electronics), two saxophonists (+ electronics, one playing alto and the other playing tenor, soprano or Ewi). There was a keyboard player, an electric bass player and two electric guitarists (+ one guitarist playing prepared guitar). The horns often played in unison as did the bass and keyboard. With the octave or chorusing effect deployed, this made for a rich and full-throated palette of tonal colours.

I have posted two very different tunes from the gig, One is MG40 with the sextet and the other a duo between Thomas and Joel Vinsen (the latter on prepared guitar). If you listen closely to MG40, you will detect the echoes of a distant past. An echo from the 1950s in fact when the conductor Leonard Bernstein attempted to explain Jazz to a very young audience. That footage is hopelessly time-locked as the plummy voice of a high-brow white man ‘explaining black music’ overshadows the message. Notwithstanding, I have no doubt that many of the Bernstein Philharmonic attendees would go on to explore improvised music after hearing Benny Golson and the sextet perform. What Thomas does with this piece is both playful and respectful. Bernstein would get it and laugh out loud. MG40 refers to Mark Giuliani – a drummer on the same trailblazing path. 

The other piece I have posted involves the sextet. With Alan Brown on keyboards and Andy Smith on guitar, the piece soars as it morphs into a multi-layered groove piece, one reminiscent of the Fusion era. The overall sound has lots of bottom, with the bass effects and saxophone effects creating a surreal lower register cushion; over which Smith and Brown build towards the heart-stopping crescendo. This was a group of heavyweight performers with Chris Mason-Battley and Markus Fritsch the horn line. And none of it possible without the invention, vision and superior chops of Thomas. 

The Stephen Thomas Electric Band:  Stephen Thomas (drum kit, drum pad + effects, triggered samples, percussion, prepared drums), Alan Brown (digital keyboard), Andy Smith (guitar + effects), Chris Mason Battley (saxophones, Ewi + effects), Markus Fritsch (alto saxophone), Mostyn Cole (electric bass + effects), Joel Vinsen (prepared guitar + effects). The gig took place at Anthology, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 18 September 2019

Richard Hammond + Friends

R HammondSubject to availability, Richard Hammond is the kind of bass player that you would consider first for an important gig or recording.  He is known for his musicality, authenticity and above all for his deep groove. His upright-bass chops are immaculate, deep in-the-pocket; his electric bass, as punchy as a kicking mule. It is therefore unsurprising that he works among the elite ranks of New Yorks first-call session musicians. He also gigs around NYC, tours with well-known vocalists and works on shows like Hamilton.  Sometimes, when the luck falls our way, he visits Aotearoa. This time he returned primarily to play bass at Nathan Haines ‘Shift Left’ Civic Theatre gig.  The above show has garnered rave reviews. 

Hammond has real presence and his human qualities shine through all that he does.  I refer there to his warm and engaging persona, his instinctive friendliness and generosity. I mention those qualities because they appear to inform his playing. In his case, the man and his music are as one. Of late this has been a theme in my posts. I find myself increasingly looking inside the music to see if I can locate the human being behind the instrument. Seeking a musicians ability (or inability) to show us something of themselves. Such a manifestation can change a listeners perception and with improvised music, it is the bread and butter of good interactions. Hammond spends most of his time in the studio but he has never forgotten these essential communication skills. In live performance, this can be critical. It could be termed as ‘character’ and inevitably it feeds musical choices. A room filled with notes is one thing, but a room bubbling with musical life is quite another.

The setlist was a tribute to Hammond’s homeland. Apart from the two tunes written by a US musician, the rest were composed by Kiwis.  It was great to hear these tunes reprised and especially with a fresh and fired-up lineup. The most significant contributor was Kevin Field whose talent for composition and arranging is well known. Nothing appears to unsettle Field. At one point the sound was lost from a monitor (and from the piano). He immediately moved to the Rhodes and as usual, played at the top of his game. I have posted the version of his tune ‘Good Friday’. A familiar tune with numerous iterations but perhaps, never played as joyfully as this; the bass lines from Hammond giving it supersonic lift-off. 

The band were Richard Hammond (electric and upright bass), Kevin Field (piano and Rhodes),  Michael Howell (guitar),  Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Stephen Thomas (drums) and guest vocalist Marjan. Together, they celebrated aspects of New Zealand improvised music’ much of it upbeat and funk orientated. Marjan showcased some of her own tunes plus a well known New Zealand tune ‘Brown Girl’ which had been reimagined as a Jazz tune by Kevin Field (more on that in a future post). 

This is Hammonds third visit home in as many years and I hope that he makes it a regular fixture. We seldom hear electric bass like that.  The gig took place at the CJC Creative Jazz Club, Anthology, K’Road, Auckland, New Zealand on 21 August 2019

Kate Wadey @ CJC Auckland

Wadey

Australia produces some fine vocal talents and Kate Wadey certainly fits that category.  Her relative youth is contrasted by a stylistic maturity and when she sings you are transported. She has a way of engaging an audience and of personalising a story. It is a communicated sincerity, a something of herself that hangs in the air as the notes fall. She makes it look easy, but I doubt that mere happenstance lies behind her skilled delivery. It was the little things that caught my attention; the flashed smile during a lyrical punch line as if inviting you to share in a hidden aside. The way she moved from coy to world-weary in an instant – changing the pronunciation of certain vowels or consonants to good effect – and occasionally leaning back on a word.  Holding it just long enough for its import to hit home.

Many vocalists sing ‘The Great American Songbook’ but with such universally loved and familiar tunes, choices must be made with care.  Picking a few favourites and belting them out will only set you among the pack. To add distinction a fresh interpretation is needed. These days that means a reharmonisation or taking an angular approach to the tune. There is another way, however. Make the tunes your own while still approaching them in a traditional way. This is where superior storytelling skills and subtle vocal mannerisms come into play. The ability to inject freshness while referencing the best of what has gone before. She did this, not by mimicking the greats but by communicating the essence of what made those versions timeless. 

As if to underscore this I found myself thinking of Anita O’Day and June Christy. It’s not that Wadey sounded like either, but there they were, living inside her delivery.  That flash of vulnerability in a sideways glance, the vibrato-less hard hitting clean tone, The sass, the time feel, the supreme confidence – it is hard to put into words but it was all there without being overt.  

The other strength was the way the setlist was put together.  Both sets were opened with guitarist Peter Koopman playing instrumental originals. A good warm-up for what was to follow, Wadey launching into a spirited ‘East of the Sun, (and West of the Moon)’ or the lesser known standard, ‘There’s a Lull in my Life’, which was lush and beautiful. After that a composition of her own ‘The Moon Song’ – followed by a stunning rendition of ‘The Song is You’.  It could be risky to perch such beautiful standards on each side of an original but the standards were as much enhanced by ‘The Moon Song’ as the converse.  The last song in the first set, while from the ‘Songbook’, is seldom sung. What a great tune it is; ‘Nobody Else But Me’ (Kern/Hammerstein), and how clever to eliminate verses from the original. In doing this the song was modernised and brought into line with modern sensibilities without needing to change a word.  She also achieved this in the second set with ‘Sweet Loraine’ – singing it woman to woman – earlier referencing the belated passing of the same-sex marriage legislation in her country.  

On tour with her, was expat New Zealander Peter Koopman and it was good to see him in this role. Koopman is popular here and although we have seen him in many guises, never as vocal accompanist. With a musician as accomplished as this, it is a good test to see how they perform in a supportive role. Koopman was superb – never once making it about him and giving the vocalist exactly what she needed – pushing when required of him and fitting gorgeous chords neatly beneath the lyrics.  On bass was Sydney musician Samuel Dobson, alternating between standard playing and arco to good effect, a long time musical associate of Wadey’s.  Local musician Stephen Thomas was on drums and as superb as always. A duo number featured Wadey and Thomas doing ‘Goody, Goody’ (Maineck/Mercer) was a treat.  I will put that up on YouTube shortly – I have posted a cut of ‘Nobody Else But Me’ with this post.  There are a number of very good YouTube clips of Wadey but I highly recommend that you purchase her albums.  ‘Moon Songs’ & ‘A Hundred Years From Today’. 

Wadey (vocals, compositions), Peter Koopman (guitar), Samuel Dobson (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums). The gig was at Backbeat for the CJC Creative Jazz Club, 24 April 2019Kate Wadey

Simona Minns, Auckland 2019

Simona (1)This was New York artist, Simona Minns second visit to the CJC, her appearances occurring one year apart to the day. Her 2018 show ‘The Hunger Games’ referenced a Kafka short story. This tour was billed ‘My Urban Spells’, expanding her ever-evolving themes of universality and free-spirited improvisation.  Minns musical education and life, have gifted her with many powerful themes to draw upon and out of these, she has crafted a powerful synthesis. Her initial training as a classical Lithuanian Zither player is never far from what she does, but neither are the Jazz and Rock worlds she discovered when she emigrated to America.

Minns is a compelling performer and this underpins her shows. There is always an engaging theatrical element to her stage presence; something akin to an off-Broadway show. When you factor in her vocal chops, fine compositions, and originality you get an enjoyable whole. It is more than a mere cobbled eclecticism, it is well-judged performance art. Simona

Like last time, she was accompanied by Alan Brown on Keyboards, Cameron McArthur bass and Stephen Thomas on drums. Because this was the bands second time around (and because they can), they stretched out more and Minns let them, confident in their abilities.  Brown in particular is accustomed to reaching into new musical spaces. His beyond Jazz explorations into ambient and ethnic music equipping him perfectly.  Some of the tunes were standards reinterpreted, others were Jazz/Rock mash-ups with electric guitar (Minns). It was though, when she sang her own compositions in her own mother tongue that she shone brightest.  Her ethnically fused Jazz, enormously appealing.

Simona Minns (vocals, compositions, guitar, zither), Alan Brown (keyboards), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Stephen Thomas (drums) – Backbeat, CJC (Creative Jazz Club) 20 February 2019.

Matt Penman & Will Vinson

The year has barely begun but musically 2019 is proving to be auspicious. Having survived January’s mid-summer improvised-music drought, we were anxious for the gig season to resume.  Then, as if by magic, the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) was back in business again. With February the gigs came thick and fast. The first week brought us Chisholm/Meehan/Dyne/Dyne and two days later there was a special CJC event at the KMC. The event was titled Matt Penman & Will Vinson (with New Zealand friends).  Matt Penman is one of the worlds premier Jazz bass players and because he hails from our city, we claim him as ours to anyone who’ll listen. We speak of him with the same pride that we do when we mention the likes of Mike Nock or Alan Broadbent.  These are sons of Auckland and they rank among the finest of improvisers anywhere. A New York musician who I spoke with recently put it this way; there are a number of very good bass players in New York and then there are those like Penman who stand above the rest. Penman

The CJC gig was doubly special as Penman brought with him the London born altoist Will Vinson. Those who follow the Jazz Press or visit New York clubs will be familiar with this musician. He and a few of his compatriots are reviving the popularity of the alto saxophone and elevating it to new heights. Like Penman, Vinson has a number of well-received albums to his credit and the company he keeps on those albums and the quality of the offerings talks volumes. His tone is never harsh but it never-the-less has a particular bite to it. As the notes flow, and the ideas develop you sense rare confidence. It is the sort of confidence that can only emanate from a musician completely at one with his horn. Even the way he holds the horn is instructive. A saxophonist sitting next to me put it this way. ‘You can’t get a unique sound or flow of ideas like that unless body and horn are as one’.  The friends were, Kevin Field (piano), Steven Thomas (drums) and for one number Dixon Nacey (guitar). Field is no stranger to performing and recording with New York musicians (including Penman), Nacey is highly rated on the New Zealand music scene and the up and comer Thomas is eating up the competition as he rises like a rocket. The New Zealand cohort also have an interesting musical connection. The majority including Penman went through Avondale college. The far-reaching influence of gifted music teacher Paul Norman is astonishing. Together the band blazed like a perfect summers day and the gig was definitely one out of the bag.

The tunes played were from Matt Penman’s recent album ‘Good Question’, Will Vinson’s repertoire and to my joy the Tristanoite classic by Lee Konitz ‘Subconscious-Lee’. There are very few tunes that I like as much as that one and with the exception of Konitz’s own renditions, this version is truly the business. Subconscious-Lee’ was pianoless and rightly so – freeing Penman, Vinson, and Thomas to open out and enjoy the space. IMG_7562

Penman’s album ‘Good Question’ is a must purchase for all Jazz lovers. It is an in-the-moment testament from the New York scene and replete with the best of band mates. Penman has long been associated with Aaron Parks and on this album, Parks soars. Like Penman, he has an uncanny knack of making every voicing or phrase sound fresh. In this supportive role, he is also unafraid to fall back on delicate comping and minimalist painterly abstractions. The album also features tenor heavyweight Mark Turner, Obed Calvaire (bass), Nir Felder (guitar), Will Vinson (who was persuaded to exchange his alto for a soprano on track three) and Rogerio Boccato (percussion). There is so much to like about this album that I hardly know where to start. The track ‘Copeland’ is dazzling – a painting of a vast landscape, Big Tent, Little Tent is a deeply satisfying exploration of interplay. My favourite track, however, is ‘Blues & the Alternative Truth’ – a reference to the Oliver Nelson album ‘Jazz and the Abstract Truth’. To my ears, it also gives a gentle nod in the direction of Claude Thornhill’s 1941 standard Snowfall. This track like the album itself is a sonic journey and from start to finish, a pleasurable one.

‘Good Question’ was released by SSC Sunnyside Communications: To purchase go to www.mattpenman.bandcamp.com  – The gig was at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Auckland, Feb 2019.