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Neutrino Funk Experience / Music Soup & the ​healing vibe

Neutrinos (2)March fifteenth began as good days should, with sunshine, a cool breeze off the ocean, and a message from a Jazz Journalist colleague in Australia. ‘Would I like to meet some award-winning Greek Jazz musicians’? I had stuff planned, but the plans were easily shelved and I drove from my leafy hilltop retreat into the city. The musicians had flown into Auckland to join a passing cruise ship and were only in town for eight hours. Ahead of them lay four months of playing standards, original material (if lucky), and the inevitable but often regrettable requests. We met up in a central city cafe. ‘John’, they yelled as I walked around the corner. For the briefest second, I wondered how they had recognised me, ascribing it to a Jazz sixth sense, then remembering my tee shirt was emblazoned with the words Prahu Jazz. We introduced ourselves, and headed for the waterfront at my suggestion, chatting as if we’d known each other for years. That’s the way in the Jazz community. You travel to a place you’ve never been before and someone will message you with the contact details of ‘cats’ to hang with. Such hangs generally follow a well-trodden path. ‘Do you know this or that cat – killing?’ Always followed by outrageous road stories and laughter.     

Evgenia Karlafti is a B3 organist, pianist, and vocalist. Her husband Nester Dimopoulos is a guitarist. They were joined on the cruise by Argentinean bass player Julia Subatin and Mexican drummer Gerardo Lopez. Everyone spoke English which is lucky because I have no Greek or Spanish. After hours of discussing music, the topic took a political turn. Earlier the musicians had made a point of referencing the peaceful laid back Auckland vibe. I recall boasting that our geographical isolation, independent foreign policy, and nuclear-free legislation protected our Island from many of the problems besetting other parts of the world. “We are an independent social democracy very like Norway,” I said, little realising how strong the synergies were. I pointed towards the Pacific ocean at our doorstep, adding, “trouble is inclined to lose its way long before it reaches our shores”. We discussed the Greek political situation and I asked how the Syrian refugee situation had impacted on everyday life. We discussed compassion and the problem of compassion fatigue. We discussed Turkey and the unhelpful belligerence of President Recep Erdogan. Neutrinos (3)

Evgenia and Nestor promised me a physical copy of their latest album titled ‘Cut to the chase’, messaged me a link and we agreed to meet up again when the ship was in port next. After we had parted I grabbed my phone and listened to a track from their album titled ‘Senior Citizen’. Perfect. As I drove home I recall thinking that this was a day among days and then I turned on the car radio. The news spoke of an attack on a Muslim community. I am used to hearing such reports. Tragedies which occur elsewhere – reported on by Christiane Amanpour or Lyse Doucet. In this case, I heard a tearful Kiwi voice. Had one of our foreign correspondents been caught up in a terror attack in London or Paris? The word Christchurch soon dispelled that notion and numbness set in as more facts emerged. A massacre of fifty innocents was happening on our soil and perpetrated by an Australian Neo-Nazi white supremacist. The carnage had started at around the exact time I was boasting about our immunity from such horrors. I don’t remember driving the rest of the way home.

Our amazing Prime Minister set the tone for what followed while we glued ourselves to the TV sets silently grieving. Why here we all asked and the Prime Minister gave us the answer we needed.  For those of you who are watching at home tonight, and questioning how this could have happened here, we, New Zealand, we were not a target because we are a safe harbour for those who hate. We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, or because we are an enclave for extremism. We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of those things. Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion. A home for those who share our values. Refuge for those who need it. And those values will not and cannot be shaken by this attack”. Norway and New Zealand were now linked in more ways than I had ever imagined. 

The next day New Zealand fell silently numb as people watched TV or visited the local mosque with flowers and cards. The Prime Minister’s words “They are us” rang out as we donated millions of dollars to the survivors and their families. Biker gangs offered themselves as bodyguards and our sadness grew as we contemplated the fifty innocents slain in our midst. Powerful images flashed across our screens. Jewish Rabbis, Imams, Anglicans, Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus and Coptic Christians arm in arm outside the Mosques. For the first time, our police carried weapons in public as our terror alert went from low to high. It had never been anything else but low. The unusual spectre of armed police, softened by the policewomen wearing headscarfs and clutching roses to their weapons. An entire nation heard the muezzin call the Adhan when the Islamic prayer rang from our Parliament the next day and from our public broadcast outlets. Surely, one of the most beautiful and evocative pieces of music ever conceived. For a day, following the lead of the Prime Minister, secular and Christian woman donned the hijab out of respect.  

This was an outrage hard to talk about; it was so new to us and so raw. We let the images guide us through our grief and as if urged by an unspoken force, started to debate our colonist past. The evils of racism and wrongs yet to be righted. Some days later I was back in our local Jazz club and the place was packed. There was no mention of the horror but it hung in the air. We had come there to be transported and to heal. Albert Ayler put it well when he said, ‘Music is the healing force of the universe’. On offer was Ron Samsom’s much-loved band ‘The Neutrino Funk Experience’. The band, understanding the vibe went absolutely wild as they sent their crazy danceable tunes heavenward. They turned happy into crazy happy and the barman, moved by it all, turned on the rock-effect strobe lighting. Each funk ridden note healed our bruised souls. We didn’t need overly complex or sad tunes; we just needed this.

Ted Gioia recently tweeted a finding by scientists, indicating that music may possess mass. A day later I read a piece by a prominent scientist reminding us of the absolute interconnectedness of life forms. It is likely then, that music is the glue; music that most ancient of languages. In my world, improvised music is super glue and the balm for all life’s ills.  I have played both the Neutrino Funk Experience album and the Music Soup album endlessly during the last few weeks and with each hearing, my belief in humankind restores.  

Dedicated to the victims of the Christchurch Massacre and to the musicians who heal us.  

With thanks to Rom Samsom, Roger Manins, Grant Winterburn and Cam McArthur of The Neutrino Funk Experience & to Evgenia Karlafti and Nestor Dimopoulos of Music Soup.

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CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Groove & Funk

The Neutrino Funk Experience​

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There is no way of calculating the number of subatomic particles routinely passing through a Neutrino Funk Experience, but we can safely quantify the delight on the faces of their audience. There is something about the structure of this unit that inclines them towards extreme risk-taking; the sort of risk-taking that transforms a band into an irregular elemental force. It is rumoured that a ‘play it safe’ memo was issued at their last venue, but the band either mislaid it or opted for willful disobedience. The only reasonable explanation for this hyper-energised, off the grid performance, is to blame it on passing Neutrinos. The band kicks arse with hobnail boots.

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The NFE were once upstairs regulars at the Albion and later they became CJC favourites. This year has been quieter for them gig wise, but the group’s energy levels have continued to rise during their hiatus. From the first note on Wednesday they nailed it to the floor. Swooping on our unprepared sensibilities and taking complete control of the room. It is hard to say who creates the most sparks as they continually feed off each other’s energy. Roger Manins is always a towering presence on the bandstand; his ad-lib asides and gestures acting as prequels to his wild solos. Eyes always follow him as he moves about the stage, but this time he had competition; the über kinetic actions of Grant Winterburn – vying with him gesture by gesture for visual and sonic supremacy.

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Ron Samsom and Cam McArthur were located behind Manins and Winterburn. In spite of being partially obscured and located in the darker recesses, you’d have thought they were playing in the chair beside you. While the band is loud, it is not unduly so; it is something else that projects them. The sound is in front, behind, inside, outside – neutrino laden energy, everywhere and nowhere – passing through the observers and imperceptibly, transforming them in a quantum fashion.

In the Bimhuis in Amsterdam, I saw Han Bennink put his boots on the kit during a drum solo. Samsom prefers his upper body and especially his elbows. Manins has some leg action. Winterburn, however, took the Bennink route and added a few wrinkles of his own. He sat on the keys, he walked on the keys and he shook his Nord until it cried out for mercy; and all of the while Samsom locked down a groove beat so tight that it became dark matter. This group not only understand group dynamics but they know how far they can go while taking the audience with them.

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Towards the end of the first set, I was handed the microphone, reading one of my poems while they played softly beneath me, accenting keywords, moving where I did.  I was so delighted at performing with this band that I forgot to press the record button – such is life.  It takes real skill for a band to take risks while staying within a groove framework. I hope they keep doing what they do and perhaps they will record again soon? Their earlier album ‘Ace Tone’ is still available at Rattle Records so grab a copy for Christmas before the stock disappears. Dancing dementedly around the Christmas tree would not be the same without it.

The Neutrina Funk Experience: Ron Samsom (drums), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Grant Winterburn (organ), Cameron McArthur (upright bass). CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Thirsty Dog, Wednesday 22nd November 2017.

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Groove & Funk, Review

Neutrino Funk Experience ‘Ace Tone’

images 086 (1)Ron Samsom’s Neutrino Funk Experience ‘Ace Tone’ album has so much up front punch that that a warning is needed on the label. It is an album that grabs you by the lapels and demands your attention. As you listen it transports you to a world of joy. The album and the live band exudes a vitality that enters through your pores, pulsing through your body like the wild blood of extreme youth. Try as you may, it is impossible to keep still as the rhythms consume you limb by limb. While the album brings historic musical references to mind, it is very much of the present. This is Jazz Funk at its very best.Ron 'Ace Tones' 094There is cleverness aplenty in the album, but that’s not what it’s about. The pulse, punch and danceability are the draw cards. The tunes let each listener glean their own references. During the album launch someone said, “Oh wow that takes me back to Deep Purple”, while others talked of the Jazz funk gurus like Herbie Hancock, Eddie Henderson and Jimmy McGriff. What ever references people heard, one thing is for certain. This band updates 70’s Jazz Funk as few other albums do. A lifelong fan of the classic genre observed, “few classic 70’s funk albums actually sound as good as this”.

There is a hackneyed saying that states; good Rock music is simple music made to sound complex and good Jazz is complex music made to sound simple. That brings me to Samsom’s compositions. Samsom joked that the tunes were so simple, that anyone who couldn’t learn them in minutes was wrong for the band. While the heads are often simple, the weave of the music is not. These tunes are skilful constructs and the subtle shifts and turns are deeply nuanced. The writing allows for open-ended improvisation and soloing, while never letting the over-arching themes subside (e.g. the single bass note and organ chord dominating ‘Simple Facts’ or the catchy closed loop melody line played on bass in ‘Other Brother’). Driving everything like a powerful locomotive is that amazing back beat. There is no mistaking the leader. Samsom is authoritive.Ron 'Ace Tones' 090 (1)Material like this needs highly skilled and experienced musicians in order to extract the maximum advantage and that is exactly what Samsom got. This is an alignment of talent that works so well that they must surely build on their success.  The Neutrino Funk Experience formed in 2014 and started doing regular gigs at Auckland’s Albion in the central City. The word soon got around and one by one we drifted down to see them. The band stood-out from the first day and the disbelieving expletives from experienced musicians confirmed what our gut told us. These guys were total ‘muthas’.Ron 'Ace Tones' 089Roger Manins always sounds great but he has excelled himself here. This brand of earthy down-home funk is a natural place for him and his own funk albums reinforce that view. Manins just tears the place up on these sessions and it would be hard to find his equal. There are times when he apparently defies gravity, rising to his toes and abandoning self to move inside the music. These are moments of pure Zen and I watch for them now. Man and instrument becoming one and out of the bell streams a cornucopia of sound, distilled from the human experience. From the otherworldly wails to the gentlest urgings you recognise Manins uniqueness. Organist Winterburn said of him, “Working with Roger is perfect for me. He’s such a rhythmic saxophonist”. Coltrane, old school funk, ballads and modern edge; it’s all there in the sound.

Grant Winterurn is another extraordinary talent and a fully formed musician. He can talk engagingly on anything musical; complex theory, Bill Evans, Kieth Jarrett, Rick Wakeman, Brother Jack McDuff or Schoenberg. Securing him for this unit was a masterstroke. He is a busy working musician and consequently we don’t see enough of him on the scene. When he does appear an audience follows; he has admirers everywhere. He is not only the consummate organist, pianist and keys player but a great showman. When a C3 or B3 player sits at the keyboards lumpen it feels plain wrong. There is no chance of levelling this criticism at Winterburn. He is delightful to watch and to listen to. Few keyboardists are better able to co-ordinate limbs, groove and flourish like him. Like all improvisers he creates maps of sound in his head and the logic of his solos draws on his wide musical knowledge.Ron, Neutrino  086On the album we have Cameron McArthur on upright bass. Even before leaving the UoA Jazz school Cameron was punching well above his weight. I would describe him as an instinctive player. Knowing where to place his lines and always strongly supportive of other band members. He quickly became a fixture in quality rhythm sections and visiting artists praised him. After a trip to New York to check out the scenic he picked up some work in cruise ship bands. By happy coincidence they had cut the album prior to him leaving. So punchy are his bass lines on ‘Ace Tones’, that you think he is playing an electric bass. In his absence Samsom hired Karika Junior Turua for the launch gig. Again this was a good choice. This time we did hear an electric bass and as Turua has experience with Jazz funk, the transition from upright to electric bass was seamless.Ron 'Ace Tones' 088 (1)Lastly there’s the album art work and the recording credits. Who ever created the cover design and layout must feel pleased; they did an amazing job. The presentation tells the ‘Ace Tone’ story perfectly. My friend Iain Sharp and I were involved in the project as liner notes providers.  As requested we contributed poems. It is rare (but not unheard of) for an album to use poems instead of the standard liner note blurb. I really hope that this trend continues for selfish reasons. Contributing something to an album like this is pure pleasure. The recording and mixing took place at ‘Roundhead Studios’ in Auckland and the mastering at ‘Turtle Tone Studios’ in New York. The album is out on Rattle Jazz where the best of original New Zealand music lives.

Having documented the band from their first gig, I have long felt a stake in this project. The finished album is surely not where this story ends; music of this quality deserves a sequel. Ron Samsom is an intuitive multi-faceted drummer and gifted composer. He is program coordinator at the UoA Jazz school. (if you haven’t already done so check out his and Manins contributions on the award-winning DOG album).

The Neutrino Funk Experience: Ron Samsom (leader, compositions, drums), Grant Winterburn (Hammond organ, Nord Stage, Wurlitzer electric piano, acoustic piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (acoustic bass) – live Karika Junior Turua (electric bass).

Live gig: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 1st July 2015

Purchase at leading record outlets or directly from Rattle Records 

For the poems look in the JazzLocal32.com page ‘Jazz as Poetry’