Hip Flask2 @ CJC

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Sometimes you just get lucky; being in the right place, at the right time, when something special is about to happen.  In 2013 that something special was the Hip Flask 2 project.   Roger Manins conceived of the second Hip Flask album while he was staying with band member Brendon Clarke.  The other band members quickly indicated their enthusiasm and the project had begun.  Once underway the need for fresh compositions and a host of other practicalities needed sorting.   Around that time I was talking to Roger Manins about the successful ‘Dog’ project, and he told me about ‘Hip Flask 2’.

Knowing that I had been planning a trip to Australia he said. “Why don’t you spend a day with us in ‘Studio 301’ and watch us record?”.  No second invitation needed, I did just that.  There is something special about watching a good band at work, taking a project from conception to completion.  Seeing them from inside the recording booth as new ideas and interesting charts coalesced into magic was fascinating.

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Now almost a year later the album is out on ‘Rattle’ and the band is on the road.  To add some additional icing to an already rich cake, ‘Ode Records’ suggested that ‘Hip Flask 1’ be included with the new album.  The original album is still widely sought after but it is sometimes hard to get.  Everyone jumped at the opportunity and ‘Rattle’ quickly changed focus to create a double-album cover.  As I had taken a number of photographs in the recording studio I decided to offer them to the band, just in case there was a use for them.  To my delight many of these were utilised in the cover art.  To be a small part of a project like this is a joy.

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As you would expect, a band on the road is a lot freer than when in the studio.  There is more room to develop ideas and there is an immediacy which occurs in a no-second-take environment.  Both manifestations are extraordinary.  The Stu Hunter tune ‘revolution’ is a good case in point.  It just begs for piano and Hammond to stretch out.  Live they do this, the musicians all extending their reach.  Manins stratospheric lift-offs into harmonics become imbued with keening cries of ecstatic soulfulness.  Hunter (who comps sparingly and soulfully during others solos) weaves his solo right around the beating heart of the music, while Adam Ponting sermonises on the meaning of the blues.   Because the band have a history together they are well accustomed to each others moves.

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It is unusual to have both C3 (or Ace Tone) and piano in the same funk unit.  Musicians of lessor calibre than Ponting or Hunter would be unable to keep out of each others way.  They not only manage it well, but make the pairing of the instruments sound natural.  Hunters soulful grooves are nicely contrasted by Pontings approach which is often unexpected.  He is an interesting pianist to listen to, often using atypical voicings.  He is equally interesting to watch.  He sits comfortably erect yet close to the piano, his hands spread flat over the keys, Monk like.  Bass player Brendan Clarke is at a sweet spot in the mix.  He never over plays, but his strong lines impress as does his perfect time sense, never more so than during ‘Bennett’s Radio Blues’.  Drummer Toby Hall rounds off this band of heavyweights.  His absorption clearly on show as he sinks trance-like into the polyrhythmic grooves.  I often wonder whether bass face trumps drum face or B3 face.  Drum face was the winner on this night.  Someone in the audience muttered excitedly at one point, “holy shit that is totally a real Jazz drummer”.

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I like so many tunes on this album but I suppose that it was ‘Lancelot Link, Missing Chimp’ that made me smile the most with its otherworldly Yusef Lateef vibe.   Anyone who was a child or who raised a child when Lancelot Link graced our screens will be chuckling at the happy remembrance; and on a key challenging penny whistle to boot.  IMG_2921 - Version 2

It is to the credit of Auckland University that they gave a grant for the Hip Flask 2 project.  Rattle records must also be praised as they have become the standard bearers of quality Jazz in this corner of the world.  The final credit goes to Roger Manins for rebooting this important piece of funk history, blowing with all his heart and above all for sharing the journey.  Rog - Version 2

For my related post on the day I spent in the 301 recording studios in Sydney, search for ‘New Year 2014 The Fabric of Creativity’ on this blog site 

also locate – http://vimeo.com/105457596  – for a video clip

Who: Hip Flask – Roger Manins (leader, Conn & Selmer tenor saxophones), Adam Ponting (piano), Stu Hunter (C3, Ace Tone), Brendan Clarke (bass),  Toby Hall (drums).

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland,     www.creativejazzclub.co.nz

Album: ‘Hip Flask 2’ available from Rattle Records or leading music stores.

New Year 2014 – the fabric of creativity

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For many, music is a distant and pleasant soundtrack which augments their moments of relaxation.   Something to wallpaper the background while they chatter over a few drinks.  I am wired differently because my normal talkativeness ceases when even a faint echo of good music is heard; an off switch is flicked.  This pied piper effect has characterised my life and often made me late for appointments.  What is it that makes music so compelling to some and not to others and why is improvised music beguiling to those with that special antennae?

My earliest memory of Jazz is of a Louis Armstrong film.  I was a primary schooler and I made my long-suffering mother take me back twice.  Louis fascinated me in ways my relatives couldn’t quite fathom but they indulged me with an EP or two.  Ours was a classical music household.  Three years later I was walking down a street near my home when I heard a trumpet playing.   I could see the musician’s outline in the upstairs window as he played, weaving deftly around what I later learned was a Coleman Hawkins solo.  I stopped in the street, delighted and open-mouthed.   I have no idea how long I stood on the pavement gawking, but I vaguely recall being led inside and offered cocoa by the trumpeters mother.   The trumpeter and his mother were Polish refugees and they made me feel very welcome.  In the months that followed I called often and absorbed Miles, Lester Young, Dave Brubeck, Sweets Edison, Art Peper, Hampton Hawes, Billie Holiday, Basie, Ellington and more.  By the time I had connected with the groove-organ trios of Gene Ammons I was damned.  I would bunk off school and play Gene Ammons or Miles all day long, dancing about like a deranged fool.  The devils music had me by the throat.

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Half a century on the same music gods and their siren songs still exert power over me.  Enough to lure me to Australia at very short notice.  I had picked up some gossip from Australian musician friends, that my friend Roger Manins was doing a gig with Mike Nock, James Muller, Cameron Undy and Dave Goodman at the 505.  I have family in Sydney and so it was a no brainer.  Family, grandchildren and Jazz, perfect.   When I told Roger that I would be flying over for the gig he invited me to his ‘Hip Flask’ recording session at the famous 301 Studios in Alexandria.  I love recording studios and to hear a top rated unit like this recording in a famous studio was too good an opportunity to miss.  I applied for extra leave and altered my flight schedule to accommodate the extra day in the 301.  IMG_8963 - Version 2

The timing rested on a knife-edge as I had a gig to attend just hours before my flight to Australia.   I made the check-out with 4 minutes to spare.  The flight over on Virgin was abysmal.  I had a headache from lack of sleep and it was like being stuffed into a rubbish tin surrounded by bored, rude flight attendants who acted as if they were in a BBC spoof.  An Australian musician later commented that Virgin felt to him like it was piloted by overtired children.  IMG_9011 - Version 2

After clearing customs, I poured myself into a taxi and headed directly for the 301.  The industrial exterior gave little indication that I was standing outside an important recording studio.  The one where EST recorded their final album.  They buzzed me in and after navigating a series of corridors I pushed open a heavily padded door to find myself in an icy cool low-lit room with two technicians, a two-man film crew and the five cats from ‘Hip Flask’.   They were sitting around the mixing desk drinking coffee and listening over and over to the intro of a tune.  It sounded great.  This is what I had come for.  To capture the very act of creation.

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It is a special privilege to follow a creative process through from inception and I felt like a kid in a candy store.  This is exactly where I wanted to be and I soaked it up greedily.   My headache had vanished at the first note.  As the morning progressed the band would troop in and out of the studio.  Trying material, listening to it and repeating it if any one member expressed dissatisfaction.  Roger outlined his vision and set the tone, but after that he allowed a form of guided democracy to exist.  If they strayed from his vision he would talk them back round.

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The sessions in the control room were all smiles and banter but a sense of purpose always ran through the proceedings like an unbreakable thread.  When they reached agreement they would return to the studio and assume their positions, baffled up and miked to such an extent that the bass drums and piano were barely visible above the wires, cover sheets and portable booths.  The band has an unusual configuration for a funk unit, being tenor Saxophone, Hammond B3, grand piano, drums and bass.  The saxophone, bass, piano and B3 were in the studio while the drums and the Leslie unit were both in isolation booths.   The studio space was big enough to accommodate an orchestra, but this quintet was squeezed into a corner and each baffled from the other in some way.

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The quintet had recorded together before and even though their last recording was in 2007, their essence had survived intact.  As the session progressed I learnt a new word, ‘shoint’.  Roger and the organist Stu Hunter used it often and they would proclaim a satisfactory cut as being ‘Shointy’ or they would listen to the playbacks to see if they had ‘shoint’.   As far as I can ascertain the term describes a deep dirty groove that hits the musical ‘g’ spot.   While it is accurate to describe the recording as Jazz Funk, it is more than that.   The unusual pairing of two keyboards, the intuitive interaction and the quality of the musicianship gifted them with limitless options to draw upon.   Over all of this Roger Manins presided like an old time preacher, communicating with gestures, earthy licks on his Conn, diagrams and pithy Rogeresk phrases.  IMG_8969

The most interesting moments came towards the end of the session when Roger produced a chart for ‘circles and clouds’.  The chart contained a few bars of musical phrases and then a series of symbols.  The ideas conveyed were beyond normal logic.  On most of the staves clouds were drawn and although these pieces were essentially free, there was a clear purpose underpinning them.  Roger had the concept firmly in his sights as he talked them through the vision or let the ideas develop in the studio until the concept was realised.  Stu Hunter would play a compellingly dissonant chord and then Adam Ponting and the others would grab a hold of what was unfolding and produce kaleidoscopic shapes, moving and shifting together like interchangeable chameleons.  When the idea was realised Roger would take them back into the control room and expand on what had gone before.  Roger, “OK you are clouds, circling a vast ocean.  Now if you look down you will see dolphins swimming and playing”.  One or other of the band then asked if there was a shoal of bait fish swimming near by.   The concepts developed and then they would repeat the process until a number of amazing miniatures were cut.  This filigree of beguiling patterns had been conjured up in that very hour.  Realised without an over reliance on written notation or oral language.  This was improvisation in its most profound form and I was lucky enough to hear and experience it.

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My earlier question as to why some people fall deep within the web of music, while others let it wash over them unaffected, is not answered here.  This listener will never lose the magic and following bands like this guarantees that.  I am impatient to see what cuts survive and what is locked way in a vault.  When the album comes out and I can hardly wait, I will have heard more than most.  Every squeak, false start and profound moment is locked in my memory.  John Zorn said, “all sound is valid”.  I heard and witnessed an intensely creative process and I feel very lucky.

Who: ‘Hip Flask’ Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Stu Hunter (Hammond B3), Adam Ponting (piano), Brendon Clarke (bass), Toby Hall (drums)

Where: Recording Session at 505 Studios, Sydney Australia.

This post is dedicated to Roger Manins my choice of best NZ artist for 2013.  Roger is not only deeply authentic and amazingly creative, but equally important he shares his vision and enables others to follow.