‘Hardbopmobile’ (with Carolina Moon)

Hardbopmobile MONK 11-3-2014 059Frank Gibson Jr’s ‘Hardbopmobile’ has been around for a number of years and the band always delivers uncompromising hard-hitting performances. Gibson and Watson see to that. This no nonsense approach guarantees that Hardbopmobile’s music, even while traversing well worn standards, is fresh. This particular gig was titled ‘Hardbopmobile plays Monk’ and with the interesting addition of vocalist Caroline Moon (Manins) on vocals, it gave us much to enjoy. Familiar and lessor known Monk tunes appeared as the evening progressed. While all of Monk’s recorded material is perennially interesting and seemingly beyond caveat, in the right hands vibrant new interpretations are possible. This is the nature and Monk, the Picasso of modern Jazz; a modernist movement in perpetual progress.Hardbopmobile MONK 11-3-2014 069Ted Gioia pointed out in his book ‘The Jazz Standards’, that only two composers of pure Jazz standards remain in ascendency.  One of these is Monk whose stock has risen steadily for many decades now. The other (and that has occurred more recently) is Billy Strayhorn. Both of these composers had an astonishing modernity about them. In spite of some beguiling melodies, neither offered the listener simplicity. What you get with Monk is often jagged and quirky compositions, but for all that his hooks snag deep. Listening to Monk you hear the sounds of New York. The broken lines andHardbopmobile MONK 11-3-2014 066 startling dissonance are echoes of traffic and street life. Very human sounds and offered from his unique vantage point. In spite of the difficulties life threw at him the music is somehow tender.  Monks was essentially a humanist voice.

Frank Gibson, Neil Watson, Roger Manins, Caro Manins and Rui Inaba gave us an enjoyable evening. At times boisterous and loud, but occasionally gently reflective (e.g.Ruby my dear). I was delighted to hear ‘Ask me now’ as it is all too often ignored by modern Monk interpreters.

Gibson has a driving incessant beat that never flags and this spurs on Watson who loves nothing better than asymmetric lines and chords that drop like IED’s. He told me that he finds Monk liberating. Roger Manins and Rui Inaba were the newer band members. Inaba kept the pulse secure while Manins adopted his usual approach which is always dangerousHardbopmobile MONK 11-3-2014 067 and wild.

Monk has been interpreted by vocalists before and most notably by Carmen McCray.  The last time anyone sung Monk at the CJC was Susan Gai-Dowling and that was three years ago. Hearing Carolina Moon (Manins) doing these interpretations I wonder that it is not done more often. Moon has re-written the Monk arrangements, adding vocal lines. Her ‘Carolina Moon’ (Monk/Moon arr.) is irresistible.  When this was composed in 1924, composers Burke & Davis must have hoped for a hit.  It rose in the charts twice and never more so than when Connie Francis sang it in 1958. I bet that they never saw Monk coming though. Turning the song on its head (no pun intended)and giving it that crazed bebop makeover.  Hardbopmobile MONK 11-3-2014 061

There was also a marvellous interpretation of ‘Epistrophy’. This also featured Moon who had cleverly added some slow rap into the mix. During her preparation for the gig she listened to a famous live performance of Monk doing ‘Epistrophy’. Her attention was immediately drawn to a number of irritating audience members, talking loudly through the solo. She then transcribed the banter and it is now integrated into the tune. This is not only clever but it is fitting and cathartic. Monk would have loved to see these talkative ghosts exorcised. Gibson asking Moon to join the band was inspired. More please.

Who: Hardbopmobile – Frank Gibson (drums), Neil Watson (guitar), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Rui Inaba (bass), – guest Carolina Moon (vocals)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand 25th March 2015.

Frank Gibson – HardBopMobile


Drummer Frank Gibson Jr has been a feature of the New Zealand Jazz scene for over 40 years.  He has accompanied and recorded with many of the greats and was one of a small cadre of Jazz musicians who remained visible at a time when Jazz was going through some very lean years.  These days we are most likely to hear him performing with his own unit the ‘HardBopMobile’ or with long time friends like keyboardist Murray McNabb or Neil Watson.

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I have seen this line up quite a few times and they offer up a solid programme of Hard Bop as the name suggests.   While they sometimes play perennial favourites, they generally prefer to dig into the overlooked tunes by the likes of Joe Henderson, Horace Silver or Monk.   With this material the band is on very firm ground.  Because of their familiarity with the genre and the material, they are able to bring fresh interpretations to the tunes.  Their approach is often surprisingly oblique.

Neil Watson

Neil Watson

Neil Watson is always adventurous on guitar and he has a joyfully quirky approach to tunes, while Cameron Allen (who is a well-respected saxophonist about town) approaches them from a more angular perspective.  The remaining band member is the popular Ben Turua (bass) and this turned out to be his last CJC (Creative Jazz Club) gig as he left for Australia soon after.

The gig was heavy on Monk compositions which were explored and probed from every angle.  It is not often that Monk’s ‘Hackensack’ is played; by a guitarist even less so.  To take it further out they loosened up the vibe and gave it a New Orleans feel.  This worked particularly well.  Other Monk tunes such as ‘Brilliant Corners’ (why this is not done more is beyond me) and ‘Ask Me Now’ occupied much of the set material.    They played Wes Montgomery’s ‘Jingles’, Ge Gee Gryce’s ‘Minority’ and a Sonny Sharrock tune ‘Little Rock’.  The free guitarist Sonny Sharrock is seldom heard these days and more is the pity.  Perhaps his hard edge and free fusion infused lines have faded with his passing?  I detect Neil’s deft hand in this last choice as he has a great liking for Sharrock.  Neil Watson also contributed a composition of his own and this probably confirms the rumour that he has been writing some new material of late.

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‘Zen Dogs’ unleashed by Neil Watson

There are any number of moods that a band can capture when fronting a Jazz gig and all are valid in their way.   Where this band is concerned fun is the most obvious descriptor because Neil Watson’s ‘Zen Dogs’ were clearly there to enjoy themselves.   Everyone was soon drawn in and the enjoyment was palpable throughout the club.

The band had a loose feel and that is not to say that they were casual in their approach to the music because they nailed every tune and then some.  I am sure that the Zen Dogs name is tongue-in-cheek, but that in-the-moment relaxed approach brought the music home in a very Zen-like way; ‘stop trying so hard and suddenly you are there’.

From the onset Neil bantered with the audience and band in that good-natured way that jazz audiences love.   After the second number he told the audience “We are the Zen Dogs and we wear small emblazoned gold rings with secret symbols inset.  We form a circle and touch these together before playing, in order to charge each other with Zen power’.    To that the saxophonist Lewis McCallum asked nervously, “What did you say we had to touch together”?

The first tune up was ‘Booga Gee‘ (Watson) which communicated that Lou Donaldson Boogaloo feel.   The jive walking pace and accented beats set the night up perfectly.    Next was ‘Lime House Blues‘ which took us back further to the earliest days of two-beat Jazz.  That tune was written in 1922 (Furber/Braham) and had a famous 1930’s film was named after it.   Many have showcased this popular Jazz standard; Louis Armstrong, Sydney Bechet, Ella Fitzjerald, Les Paul (the latter with Chet Atkins).    While it is possible that the tune has been played before on a (Mexican) Fender Telecaster, I am unaware of it.   What is certain is that we heard a fresh and spirited interpretation on Wednesday.    This version was true to the original, but riotous and filled with the joyous abandon – a ‘mad and bad’ blues as the lyrics state.

Also among the offerings was a tribute to Wes Montgomery called ‘Wes de Money‘ (Watson), an astonishing evocation of Charles Mingus on ‘Meters to Go‘ and a Jelly Roll Morton tribute titled ‘Jelly Roll‘.    Throw in Monk’s ‘I Mean You‘ and a few more originals and you have the set list.   To play such an eclectic mix of tunes was a bold move (drawing as they did from the entire Jazz spectrum).  In the hands of this band the choices knitted together and not every band could have pulled this off so convincingly.    The key to attaining such cohesion was three-fold; they communicated their enjoyment of the material, their musicianship was superb and they held the audience from start to finish.

The band were Neil Watson (guitar, leader),   Louis McCallum (alto sax, clarinet & electronic effects), Olivier Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums).

Neil handled his slim necked Fender as if it was an extension of his own limbs.    This effortless skill has been gained from his many years working as a professional musician (both here and overseas).   There is the hint of rock-god in his act but it is delivered with a cheeky grin.   This guy does not take himself too seriously but he does invest everything into the music.   A friend of mine recalls seeing him play at the Tauranga Jazz festival when Neil was barely a teenager and he was impressed back then.

Louis McCallum played straight alto sax, clarinet and at times his alto sound was electronically altered by a small Korg analogue box.   Rather than choosing a modern synthesized saxophone he had purchased a $3 mini microphone and strapped it below the mouthpiece.    This simple approach produced interesting effects, but unlike the synthesized sax the effects can be turned off and on at will.    Using his clarinet in juxtaposition to Neil’s Fender gave ‘Lime House Blues’ the feel of being ultra modern while remaining respectful of a trusty old war-horse.  Louis also demonstrated an ability to deliver the BeBop and Post-Bop lines that some of the tunes called for.

Oli Holland is a fine bass player and he performed extremely well in this line-up.  He is certainly no mere journeyman as he showed amply during the night.   At times he would feed lines back to Neil and his performance on the Charles Mingus number is something I won’t easily forget.  Only an artist deeply versed in the history of Jazz could have captured the Mingus bass lines in the way that he did.   He also told the Mingus story in fresh way.  The Mingus oeuvre is interesting, as it sits slightly outside of the mainstream.   Hints of the anarchic and loose nature of that music were communicated well and I wish more bands would do this material.   Perhaps it is just too hard?

The remaining band member was drummer Ron Samsom.   If a band wanted to explore a wide spectrum of music and still retain a modern feel then he would be the drummer of first choice.   That is because he is freer, looser in style and more open than many drummers.   Because he has the ears of a seasoned professional he is able to respond well in any given situation.   To hear him play on ‘Lime House Blues‘ and ‘Jelly Roll‘ was to hear a modern stylist demonstrating that he could channel the two-beat style of a Baby Dodds or Poppa Joe Jones.   On the Mingus number he ‘dropped bombs’ and sat on the ride cymbal.   Ron never sounds complacent on the kit and perhaps that’s what sets him apart.    To have Ron and Oli together in a band is to add an x-factor.

The night had been billed as psychedelic jazz swinging by the early days of the music.   That is a fair description as it indicates the entire Jazz spectrum traversed.     The oft used phrase serious-fun is all that I can add to that.   The band have been recording this material and will lay down additional tracks early in the New Year – the album when it is completed will certainly be on my wish list.

Susan Gai Dowling – CJC

Thelonious Monk, Minton's Playhouse, New York,...

Image via Wikipedia

Wednesdays offering at the CJC was Australian based Jazz singer Susan Gai Dowling.    Susan’s sidemen were Kiwi Jazz veterans Mike Walker (p), Pete McGregor (b), and Frank Gibson Jnr (d).   After hearing her sing I could understand why she was in demand on the Sydney scene after so many decades.    Her voice is warm and slightly smokey and above all it is a real Jazz voice.   At her command were all of those tricks of articulation that tend to separate Jazz singers out from the straight-ahead variety.    To underscore her Jazz credentials she announced that she would mainly sing ‘Monk’ tunes.  To up the anti even further there was also an extremely difficult Brubeck number thrown in, ‘Raggy Waltz’ ; in addition we heard ‘Very Early‘ (Bill Evans), Lady Bird, (Tad Dameron) and ‘Girl Talk‘ (Bobby Troupe).

Thelonious Monk was a genius of composition, but singing his tunes is arguably a risky business with all of those spiky  rhythms to contend with.  Others have put words to Monk and Carmen McRae was the standout in my view.    McRae has set a high bar to what is already a difficult proposition, but Susan approached the task with confidence.    She opened with a standard. ‘Old Devil Moon‘ and then tackled ‘Blue Monk‘.     As she progressed through the eight Monk tunes it was obvious that she was more than up to the task.     Like McRae her intonation and her ability to deal with the complexity of the tunes was impressive.  Mike Walker dealt with the angular percussive accents in the way that an accompanist should.  Not over-bearing and leaving enough room for the singer to tell her story.   The rest of the band got right in behind the singer and they deserve credit for their flawless performance because they had not been able to rehearse because of the tight timeframe.

Next was the lovely melody ‘Ask Me Now’.  It was a real treat and it enhanced the singers credentials as she captured the raw beauty and emotion of the tune.   The other Monk tunes were ‘Well You Needn’t‘, ‘Ugly Beauty‘, ‘In Walked Bud‘, ‘Ruby My Dear‘, ‘Monks Dream‘, & ‘Round Midnight‘.   ‘Ruby My Dear’ was lovingly executed and this iconic tune along with her rendition of the Evans classic ‘Very Early‘ were highlights.

Susan Gai Dowling and Mike Walker were off this week to play a gig in New York’s ‘Birdland’ club.