Australian and Oceania based bands, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Piano Jazz, Review

Steve Barry ‘Puzzles’ Tour NZ

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Steve Barry recorded his new ‘Puzzles’ album back in February and after his very successful first album ‘Steve Barry’, there were high expectations for its successor.  In ‘Puzzles’ Barry has returned to the winning combination of Alex Boneham on bass and Tim Firth on drums and he could hardly have done otherwise.  When musicians work this well together and have more to say, the journey should continue.  While essentially a trio album, the gifted alto saxophonist Dave Jackson joins them for three numbers.  There is a sense of shared vision here as the four have worked together extensively.  While familiarity can sometimes breed complacency there is none of that in ‘Puzzles’.  The communication between band members is intuitive, but there is an element of surprise and freshness about the interactions.  All of these musicians are at their peak and while they impress deeply, there is no escaping the fact that it is the strength of compositions that gives this album its edge.

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Barry’s life is an extremely busy one.  He is in the final stages of his doctrinal studies (focussing on composition) and he gigs regularly around Australia and New Zealand.  Last year he won the prestigious Bell Award and was the runner-up at Wangaratta.  Guiding his impressive work ethic is more than just academic or professional considerations; he possesses a deep quest for knowledge.  If you follow Barry’s physical travels you understand something of what motivates him.  He is never a casual tourist.  His engagement with and questioning of the world about him informs his work.   The compositions in ‘Puzzles’ reflect this as they are carefully crafted improvisational vehicles, complimentary in relation to each other but clearly reflecting the learnings gained by Barry along the way.   The sound quality on the album is also superb and the album nicely presented.   ‘Puzzles’ was recorded at the ‘Pughouse Studios’ in Melbourne by Niko Schauble and the cover design is Barry’s.

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I saw Barry on his way through Auckland to perform in Queenstown.  Reports from that gig were positive and over the week he worked his way back to Auckland’s CJC, where he performed with Roger Manins on tenor, Cameron McArthur on bass and Ron Samsom on drums.  The CJC band are highly rated musicians, but you inevitably get a different feel from any band less familiar with the material.  While the numbers on the album sound effortless, the charts are obviously complex.  We heard many cuts from the album and a few new numbers that have not yet been recorded.   In the past Barry’s compositions tended to favour a degree of density, but many of his new tunes have a lighter feel.  They are probably just as complex but like all evolving musicians Barry is mastering the art of making the complex sound simpler.  It would be hard to pick between the tracks on ‘Puzzles’ but for beauty and emotional depth I like ‘Forge’ and for groove the fabulous ‘Heraclitus Riverbed’ (anything involving the ancient philosopher Heraclitus draws me in).  It was interesting to compare Manins (live) with Jackson (on the album).  Manins on tenor was the passionate story-teller while Jackson on alto has a drier sound and evokes the feeling of an intrepid pugnacious explorer.

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After listening to him live and replaying the album for days on end the conclusion is inescapable; Barry is a major talent on an upward trajectory.  I would urge people to hear him live when the opportunity presents itself and above all to support his art by buying the albums.

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The Album: ‘Puzzles’ – Steve Barry (piano, rhodes), Alex Boneham (bass), Tim Firth (drums), Dave Jackson (alto saxophone).  www.stevebarrymusic.com

The CJC Gig: Steve Barry (Piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ron Samsom (drums) on the 29th October 2014   www.creativejazzclub.co.nz

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Australian and Oceania based bands, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Bop

Steve Barry Trio@CJC November 2013

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I have watched the career trajectory of Steve Barry for sometime and with each passing year the acclaim grows.  Just over a year ago he won the prestigious Bell Ward.  More recently he obtained second place in the ‘Australian Jazz artist of the year’ awards at Wangaratta 2013.  After winning a generous grant, enabling him to concentrate on his writing, he took time out for wood-shedding and further study.  He also travelled extensively.  He made use of this time by studying under piano masters like John Taylor.  From the outside his rise has the appearance of an effortless ascendancy, but the success of Steve’s trio arises from dedication and hard work.  His years of intensive study and relentless practice are now paying off.  As a result he plays with a maturity that is rare in younger artists and his unique approach to form is especially evident in his own reworked compositions and the often obscure but well-chosen ballads that he plays.

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There are two equally valid Jazz traditions around forming up combo’s and both can produce in-the-moment music.  At one end of the spectrum are groups formed just prior to a gig.   Hasty truncated rehearsals take place if time allows, but in some cases the musicians do not meet each other until they hit the bandstand.  At the other end are the groups like Jarretts Standards Trio, who are so familiar with each other that communication becomes intuitive.   Both situations have their pitfalls as the overly familiar can produce a certain complacency (Evans was sometimes guilty of this), while the seat of the pants line-ups can result in cues being missed.  Even good musicians fall at these hurdles but not so this trio.  The Steve Barry Trio has been together for over two years and they deliver royally.   The music sounds incredibly fresh each time we hear them and there is no lack of invention.   This is a special group with a unique ability to react to and challenge each other.   They are one of the finest piano trios in Australasia.

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I have heard Steve’s compositions many times, but on Wednesday it all seemed new.  They were the same familiar tunes with their complex time signature and moments of intense ostinato but they had somehow evolved.  Steve Barry is not an artist to rest on his laurels or to recycle old licks.  The most obvious changes occurred with the intro’s, which probed new pathways and took us on compelling journeys until we were again on familiar ground.   His intro’s and outro’s are something I look forward to, as they balance the pulse and swing.

I loved every note but the piece that really stood out was the seldom heard standard ‘More than you know’ (Vincent Youmans -1929).  This was covered by Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday and others.  It is not heard much these days.  This slowly paced intensely beautiful ballad proved a good vehicle for improvisation and in the hands of this trio it was wonderful.  Steve stated the melody upfront and the richness of his voicings took my breath away.  There were subtle asides as the tune progressed, like a fine filigree partly obscuring the form.  Then about five minutes in a gentle swing section.

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You could not wish for better collaborators than Alex Boneham on bass and Tim Firth on drums.   Both are truly exceptional musicians.  There is a rich fatness to Alex Boneham’s tone which is all the more surprising as he was playing an old upright bass from the Auckland University School of Music.  In the hands of a master bassist, even an average instrument sounds rich and full toned.  His feel for time and note placement is perfect; deeply engaged and listening with big ears for every nuance.

Tim Firth also creates a buzz when he is in town and local drummers especially love to hear him.  Few can handle complex time signatures like he does and while he can play high octane tunes with edginess and fire, he can also execute brush work perfectly.   His brush work on ‘More than you know’ was understated (as it should be on a ballad) but as the tune progressed you were in no doubt about the value of his contribution.

This was one of those nights that gives Jazz a good name.

Who: The Steve Barry Trio – Steve Barry (leader and piano), Alex Boneham (upright bass), Tim Firth (drums)

Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland on the 27th November 2013

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, Review

Steve Barry trio @ CJC – Album Release Tour

Steve Barry

Steve Barry the Auckland born Jazz pianist left New Zealand a few years ago and with him he carried our highest expectations.  That can be a distraction to an emerging artist, but Steve possesses a faculty that overrides distractions.  He is one of the better pianists that I have heard and there is a back story to that.  His focus is unwavering to the point of obsession and he is an artist that won’t be  hurried.  We impatiently awaited his first album, the eponymously named ‘Steve Barry‘; always urging him to record.  He resisted all entreaties, practicing and refining while an innate sense of timing guided him.

He was right and we were wrong – now is the perfect time.  The album launch at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) and the album itself fulfilled every expectation.

This is an artist who puts the integrity of the music before any rapid career path.  This is the right time for the album release, placed as it is firmly within the ambit of work being done by Aaron Parks, Matt Penman, Kurt Rosenwinkel and other ground breaking younger artists.  This new sound is gaining ascendency and with adherents like Will Vinson, Lage Lund and Mike Moreno it will continue to do so (‘James Farm’ are perhaps the epitome).  This music is mainstream Jazz but it references sources as diverse as Lenny Tristano, Indie Rock and even Hip Hop.  The fractured and complex rhythms are juxtaposed with soaring fluid guitar lines.  Against that are the textures and layers of melody.   Only the best musicians can pull this material off and only the best composers can write such material.

While Steve is clearly influenced by this ‘new sound’ he is no slavish imitator.   He has found something that often alludes younger pianists; a recognisable and original voice.Tim Firth

One listen to this album explains everything about this artist and this incredible band.  All of the tunes on the new album are composed by Steve Barry and the compositions are sometimes dense and multi-layered.  This is a musical journey of the profoundest sort.  One that demands your fullest attention and perhaps a little knowledge of what is happening in the Jazz world.  The highest rewards in Jazz occur when we understand something of what is going on.   This is not background music for cocktail parties.  This is up to the minute real.

Jazz musicians tell me that the ones who succeed are those with an almost monomaniacal focus; Steve is such a musician.  He works harder than most as do the band members.   These guys have been playing together for a number of years and they respond to each others every nuance.   If you close your eyes when Tim Firth is playing, you blink them open just to make sure that Eric Harland hasn’t jumped into the drum chair.  His ability to chop up rhythms and channel trip-hop beats is nothing less than astonishing.  I have seen drummers watch him in open-mouthed amazement.  He can also launch a flurry of quiet brush work which is never-the-less as propulsive as a whispering rocket.

Alex Boneham is another stellar musician and he has long been a favourite with New Zealand bass players and Jazz fans.  He is the glue holding these often complex compositions in place and he does so with unwavering certainty.  As the charts unfold the musicians pull away from the known – taking different routes as they stretch against the boundaries.  In spite of the complexity and the risk taking, the implied centre always holds firm.   One musician said to me that he had never heard a band hold such a tight centre while reaching so far into the unknown.  Alex Boneham

The program was nicely balanced and to do this the band deviated from the album on occasion.   There were three lessor known standards performed on the night and the one that stood out was Wayne Shorter’s achingly beautiful ballad ‘Teru’ (from ‘Adams Apple’).   There were two Shorter tunes and that did not surprise me.  Shorter’s works are deceptively complex and they fitted tidily into the repertoire.   As nice as the Shorter was, Steve Barry’s own compositions are the most deserving of praise.   Many of us in Auckland are familiar with these as he has been refining them over several years.  Each time I hear a tune like ‘Parks’, Unconcious-lee (yes referencing Tristano) or ‘Clusters’, I find that the works have evolved.   This is what good Jazz is about.  A restless exploration into the heart of the music.

The highlight of the evening came at the beginning of the second set.   The trio launched into a spirited up-tempo number ‘Changes’ which segued into a long probing introduction.   The solo introduction was of a quality that we seldom hear – no one breathed as the piece unfolded delicately.  The new tune was ‘Vintage’ (also from the album).  At a point so delicately balanced that no one saw it coming we suddenly became aware of the pulse of brushes.  The moment was so perfectly executed  that a gentle gasp arose from the audience.  There were fleeting glances left and right as everyone acknowledged the moment they had witnessed.  The brushes played a solid 4/4 groove over the tune which is in 7/4.

An older woman next to me had tears of joy in her eye; “It was so wonderful that I dared not breathe” she said.  “I was his original piano teacher and as a pupil he was one in a thousand.  He worked harder than most and was relentlessly passionate about music”.  This confirmed the source of the magic, hard work endless commitment….and chops.

There is an additional member on the album who did not make the New Zealand leg of the release tour, Carl Morgan.   His work is also extraordinary and very much in the style of Lage Lund, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mike Moreno.  The album deserves to do well and if it’s distributed widely enough it will.   Don’t just take my word for it; buy a copy and judge for yourself.   Be quick because the copies will go fast.  This is a must for any Jazz Lovers stocking whether you’re from Oceania or further afield.     CD Art - Front Cover

WHAT: ‘Steve Barry’ Cd  Jazz Groove Records, http://www.stevebarrymusic.com

WHO: Steve Barry (piano), Alex Boneham (bass), Tim Firth (drums), Carl Morgan (Guitar 3,4,9)

WHERE: Launch tour at CJC (Creative Jazz Club)

WHEN: November 28-11-2012

CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians

Mark Lockett Trio – album launch @ CJC

Alex Boneham and Mark Lockett

Drummer led bands have never been commonplace and drummer led trio’s even less so.  Just because the leader is a drummer does not mean any more or less than it would if the leader was a bass player or a saxophonist.  A leader is there to impart a creative vision and this trio rose to the task.

On Wednesday the 4th of July the Rattle Records/ ‘Sneaking Out After Midnight’ launch tour arrived at the CJC in Auckland.   The prior and subsequent tweets or Facebook posts have pointed to the success of the gigs, which have been well received throughout New Zealand.  To read my earlier review see below ‘Mark Lockett – Sneaking Out After Midnight’ from this blog site.

Alex Boneham

The band that toured New Zealand may not have featured New Yorker’s, Joel Frahm (sax) or Orlando Le Fleming (bass) but we did extremely well with their replacements.  Mark had wryly commented that the former were unable to tour ‘for tax reasons’.    The Australian Alex Boneham replaced Orlando Le Fleming and his work is already well-known to the Auckland Jazz community.    Alex has previously toured here with the Steve Barry trio and I doubt that any of us will ever forget the telepathic interplay between Steve Barry (piano), Alex Boneham (bass) and Tim Firth (drums).   This is an in-demand bass player who recently won the ‘Best young Australian musician of the year award’.  He is both attentive and inventive and what you get is skillful interplay and adventurous improvisation.

The third trio member was Australian alto player Julian Wilson, who has worked with Mark Lockett for many years.   He acquitted himself well.

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What particularly struck me was just how musical Mark’s drumming was and when he and Alex fell into lockstep it was riveting.   To purchase copy of ‘Sneaking Out After Midnight’ contact Rattle Records Ltd  (link).

I have streamed one track from the album titled ‘Mr Pickles’.  Mr Pickles is the story of Mark Lockett’s cat and an unfortunate neighbour – a hapless man who thought that he could outsmart a cat.   Being a great respecter of cats and their place in the Jazz story I could not help but include this.  This is as good a cat story as you will hear.