Two years have passed since Mukhlisa was last in Auckland and locals jumped at the chance to see them again. They are not your usual improvising group, fusing an exotic blend of middle eastern music, folk, and Jazz in a way that sounds totally authentic. While far from being mere novelty entertainment, the music is still fun, and because of its integrity and musicianship, other musicians flock to hear them play. It is rare to see such complex music communicated so convincingly and that is the key to their longevity and success.
With rhythmically complex music like this, it is easy to misstep. With Mukhlisa there is no evidence of that; years of playing together has allowed them to play as if one entity. While faithful to the old melodies and rhythms, a newer genre resides here. This is hopeful music for the new millennium; in these times of willful ignorance and political tomfoolery, the best way to understand our fellow humans is through the universality of art. When political systems fail us, the arts always come to our rescue.
Tim Sellars is the group’s leader and he has kept Mukhlisa together for many years. That the music at this gig sounded so fresh, is a tribute to him. Sellars is a master of middle eastern percussion instruments, and on Wednesday he had four hand drums with him; a frame drum, Darabuka, Riq, and Cajon. The Riq while the smallest of his percussion instruments, is the most fascinating. In the right hands, it is astonishingly versatile and Sellars takes full advantage of its possibilities. The soundscape created, often polyrhythmic, is impressive enough, but when Sellars plays his hands dance as if choreographed.
On amplified acoustic guitar was Glen Wagstaff, a leader in his own right, his softer acoustic sound enhancing the ensemble. His unison lines and counterpoint, adding just the right touch – balancing out the brighter sound of the flute, augmenting the bass and percussion. Few local bass players could pull this music off as well as Michael Story, his lines requiring the utmost precision. Lastly, there was Tamara Smith on flute. What a joy to see her back in town. A wonderful musician who breathes fire and magic into her instrument and who delivers tight ensemble playing and marvelous solos. I wish we saw her more often.
The set list drew on three Sellars originals (all terrific tunes – especially his ‘Strategic Point’), a number of middle eastern tunes, a Bulgarian and a Korean tune. Mukhlisa has an album out titled ‘The Puzzle’.
I have long been drawn to middle eastern music, having commented on it in earlier blog posts. There are many reasons to like this rich musical stream, but what draws me are the interactions that occur when eastern and western improvised traditions meet in mutual respect. This is often labeled as World/Jazz, but implying that it is new hybrid is somewhat problematic. Both improvised traditions have deep roots and a successful meeting acknowledges this. The blend of Jazz and middle eastern music is mainstream in the Mediterranean regions but not as well-known elsewhere. Adventurous artists like Dhafer Youssef, Rabih Abou-Khalil and Anouar Brahem have gained prominence in the west through collaborations with the likes of Kenny Wheeler, Charlie Mariano, Steve Swallow, Tigran Hamasyan, Marcin Wasilewski and others. Jazz lovers in New Zealand and Australia have already experienced the ancient Sephardic music of Spain through Caroline Manins ‘Mother Tongue’ projects. Also through Kiwi Jazz harpist Natalia Mann’s Turkish projects. Much of this music derives from the Sufi tradition but Sicilian and Flamenco Jazz fusions should not be overlooked either; both having rich Islamic and Jewish sources feeding them. The Moors ruled Sicily for 400 years and southern Spain for 500 years. Under the various Caliphates there was great religious tolerance and a spirit of scientific curiosity. The arts and musical traditions merged and flourished in that benign space.
Tim Sellars is a drummer/percussionist who graduated from Canterbury University Jazz School with honours. His studies led him to examine the rhythms and tunes of middle eastern music and he put together ‘Mukhlisa’ to further these explorations. The Auckland line up features two artists who we are very familiar with, Glen Wagstaff on acoustic guitar and Tamara Smith on flutes. For leader Tim Sellars, and for bassist Michael Story this was a first visit to the CJC. Of the tunes chosen many were traditional but the largest number were by a modern writer of Middle Eastern music Joseph Tawadros. His compositions fuse the traditional with Jazz and allow ample room for improvisation. Watching Tim Sellars on percussion is eye-opening as he coaxes so many complex rhythms and sounds from his array of percussion instruments, that it beggars belief. At times he used the Cajon (of African/Peruvian origin) but mostly he played frame drums (middle eastern). I love to hear the frame drum as it is the oldest instrument known to man. The genre includes the Riq (tambourine) which Tim played to perfection. Being an amplified acoustic ensemble the sound worked well in the club space. The guitar perhaps needed turning up a touch, to give it more bite. Tamara was her usual impressive self and her control and mastery of the instrument was evident throughout. She alternated between bass flute and alto flute; the tonal richness of both horns blending perfectly with the upright bass. Bass player Michael Story understood the cues and worked with Tamara; resisting any impulse to overplay. Acoustic ensembles like this require discipline and subtlety; overly showy solos can dominate and obscure the filigree of woven sound. Mukhlisa got that right and the solo work although appealing, was rightly subordinate to the overall integrity of the music. Glen Wagstaff is popular in Auckland and his charts for large ensembles have impressed club goers. It was good to see him in a different context and many of us eagerly await his album, which is due out in a month or so.
There is ample scope for a larger ensemble to grow out of this; perhaps one including arco Cello and Oud.
I am happy to see this music finding a home in New Zealand as it is a metaphor for a wider truth. We are living through a troubled era when many western peoples are recoiling from Islamic images. If they are only aware of conflict images or brutality then perhaps they are looking in the wrong places. In this music resides harmony peace and humanity.
the composition is Phoenix by Joseph Tawadros.
Who: ‘Mukhlisa’ – Tim Sellars, Glen Wagstaff, Tamara Smith, Michael Story
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
On the 25th July 2012 the Christchurch band ‘The Silhouette of Mr Pink ‘ fronted the CJC. I had heard Roger Manins speak enthusiastically about the ‘New Music Collective’ and of Tamara Smith, but I had not yet encountered her music (I don’t think that Tamara or the band have recorded although they featured on Colette Jansen’s ‘Jazz Footprints’ program earlier in the year).
It is becoming commonplace for small groups to omit chordal instruments and this group was essentially a flute led trio/quartet. The variety of instrumental configurations popping up around the country tells me that New Zealand Jazz audiences are increasingly open to adventurous and quirky Jazz.
Tamara is a real presence on stage and her personality and chops leave you in no doubt that she could play solo flute and still hold the attention of an audience.
The band opened the first set as a trio, with Tamara on C & Alto flutes, Andrew Keegan on drums and Mike Story on bass. Tamara’s compositions were reworked for the gig and they emanated from a long sojourn in Paris when she was younger. The compositions sounded fresh and in many ways unexpected as they tallied perfectly with the stories that Tamara told. Her musical and verbal vignettes spoke of exotic locations and they reminded me of haiku. Perfectly contained miniatures – pebbles of sound hitting a pond and spreading like ripples. It was up to us to interpret and we did; this drew the audience nicely into the creative process.
As the evening progressed the fourth member of the band Chris Burke (tenor sax) joined in. In keeping with the smaller group he tended to favour unison lines unless either he or Tamara were soloing.
The track that I have put up “Cheeky Monkey” was composed by Tamara and it gives a good account of the group’s dynamics. It begins with her playing unaccompanied (although you would hardly know that, so full is the sound). Many of the modern flute techniques can be heard such as her singing in parallel harmony and in producing a multitude of extended flute techniques too numerous to mention. The multi-phonic effects added real depth the sound.