Just when I think that I am getting a handle on the extent of the New Zealand Jazz scene something new comes along that tells me I don’t. I humbly admit that I am only just beginning to comprehend it. As the CJC attracts more offshore Jazz visitors it is also attracting more Wellington and Christchurch bands and those have been great. If this trend continues I half expect to see the Gore chapter of the ‘Balclutha John Zorn Tribute Band’ on the billing sometime soon.
A particular case in point is the Christchurch Jazz scene which is producing some astonishing Jazz musicians. A slow but steady stream of these musicians has been drifting northward (Andy Keegan, Dan Kennedy & Richie Pickard to name but a few). In the last few years we have had the Tamara Smith trio and Reuben Derrick’s quartet (both of which gave an excellent account of themselves) and now the Glen Wagstaff Project. Roger is never wrong about this stuff and he told us that we were in for a treat.
Jazz is a broad deep river and the tributaries running into it are now so numerous that it is easy to overlook one. I have long been urging the better writers among our Auckland musicians to do more ensemble writing (or even better write a some charts for a nonet). They have patiently explained that this is a big task and one which requires a commitment of time. I have continued to engage these musicians on the likes of Kenny Wheeler and almost everyone loves what he does. As much as he’s admired, his compositions or similar work is seldom performed. Following the progress of such outlier writing is confined to selective offshore artists.
When the Glen Wagstaff project flew in last week all I knew about them was that Glen is great writer and that Roger Manins was enthusiastic. Three of the band were familiar to me as they have played at the CJC before. I sat back expecting a quick few bars as they ran through an arranged head and then numerous solos to follow. What I got was a rich gorgeous feast of ensemble playing. I couldn’t have been more delighted. These charts are crafted with consummate skill and like any well-arranged medium to large ensemble charts they imparted a sense of space and breadth. To get the feel of a bigger unit while retaining the airiness and space of a small one is what such writing is all about. The effect of well written charts like these is profound. The choice of instrumentation is also important as it allows for very particular textures and voicings. These charts were well written and well played. I was there from the first number and remained captivated throughout.
Most of the numbers were original but several were re-arranged from the likes ‘The Brian Blade Foundation’ and ‘Kenny Wheeler’. A version of “Kind Folk’ from the amazing Kenny Wheeler ECM disk ‘Angel Song’ was breath-taking. The Wheeler disk had a pared back lineup (Kenny Wheeler, Lee Konitz, Dave Holland & Bill Frisell) but in Glens hands this expanded for an octet. The gig was divided between septet and octet and this allowed the various band members to take short solos’. On guitar was Glen and he resisted the urge to perform long soaring virtuosic lines as they would have been out of place. That said his guitar work was just great and the little hints of Abercrombie or even Rosenwinkel stylings gave us a glimpse of his prowess as a player. Tamara Smith has been to the CJC before and along with Auckland’s Trudy Lile she owns the flute space. Tamara is a gifted musician who can utilise extended technique or just floor you with her breathy soulful notes. Having both flute and voice in the mix worked well for me and the fact that they were able to blend while never appearing to crowd the others space, tells me a lot about their abilities and the charts.
On tenor sax was Gwyn Renolds (who also doubled on soprano) and on alto was George Cook. Both played superbly and both had solo spots which were enthusiastically received by the audience. Once again these guys showed how well they could modulate their sound and fit tightly into the mix. Ensemble playing of this sort requires an unusually disciplined approach and the naturally louder horns resisted the impulse to dominate where that would have been inappropriate. On piano was Catherine Wells and while she had few solos, she added just the right touch to the ensemble. A minimalist approach was called for and that was delivered. This sort of band is about texture and her occasional mid to upper register filigree added value.
Andy Keegan and Richie Pickard are increasingly seen about town and they are well appreciated by CJC audiences. They are both skilled readers and able to deliver deeply nuanced performances or knock out punches as the job in hand requires. They have often featured in louder, frenetic bands but have also shown how tastefully they can play when presented with charts like this. I have high regard for both as musicians.
Lastly there was Toni Randle who sang wordless lines and approached the charts much as a non chordal instrument would. Adding the human voice into charts like these is to impart a degree of magic when done well. It takes writing skills and well honed performance skills to pull this off. One again this worked incredibly well. I have long been a fan of Norma Winstone and Toni followed very much in her footsteps. The human voice is a powerful instrument and to hear it freed from the job of interpreting lyrics is a joy. The tune ‘Maylie’ that I have put up, is one of Glens and it illustrates that point perfectly.
During the dying years of the big band swing era the Claude Thornhill Orchestra and a few others were doing things differently. Musicians like Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan came up through these bands and then came the seminal ‘Birth of the Cool’ and Gil Evans. This sort of writing has never gone away but it is certainly on the periphery. I’m thrilled that Glen Wagstaff is writing in this way and I hope that he continues to do so. His band and his charts have real integrity and the club crowd reacted to that. I left the gig deeply satisfied and that’s what this music is all about.
Who: The Glen Wagstaff Project – Glen Wagstaff (leader, guitar, compositions), Tamara Smith (flute), George Cook (alto), Gwyn Renolds (tenor, soprano), Toni Randle (vocals), Catherine Wells (piano), Richie Pickard (bass), Andy Keegan (drums).
Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), basement 1885 building, Brittomart Auckland