Anthology, Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, experimental improvised music

The Melancholy/Stinging Babes

Melancholy Babes (2)Anything that Jeff Henderson is associated with is likely to be intense, mind-altering and extraordinary. No matter how prepared you think that you are, you should understand that your head will be fucked with. When you factor in Tom Callwood, Anthony Donaldson and Daniel Beban the Henderson effect is magnified exponentially. This music is powerful stuff as it sweeps aside genres as irrelevant distractions. When confronted with a gig like this you abandon preconceptions, as the sonic smorgasbord jolts you out of complacency. It is also a visual experience and Fellini would have signed these guys up in a heart-beat.

There was no music on the stands, one break and there were no announcements. The music followed its own momentum and created its own time. In some sections you were confronted with reedy screams, while in others you heard languid whispers; hinting at some lost illusory past; one located just outside the edge of memory. There was of course structure, but that was determined by the music’s inner logic. It reminded me of a recent Wayne Shorter performance where he purged any semblance of song form; removing structures that impeded the flow, leaving the audience with just music; a vessel inside which the musicians could move freely. Intuitive interaction is the foundation of all improvised music. In this case, the music was a river in flood, an elastic entity, following an old course or cutting a fresh channel at will. 

There were two tunes in the first set (one a Parker number delivered with the essence of Ornette presiding). The overall impression was of one piece of music with a number of moving parts. As the parts formed, some felt familiar, but where you ended up was generally somewhere unexpected. This was a chimeric journey and like children watching a cartoon for the first time, we lived entirely in each moment.  Modern music audiences are dumbed down with endless nonsense; the old trope that music can only be swallowed in discrete recognisable chunks. This music made no concessions to that or any other populist view and nor should it. Many who attended last week were unfamiliar with the avant-garde, but they didn’t need to be told what it was about. They didn’t need an explanation, to know that it belonged to this or that genre. The proof was in the reception. People sat there totally absorbed and because the experience was all-encompassing, 2 1/2 hours flew by.

Jeff Henderson plays the role of a dark shepherd on New Zealand’s ‘out-music’ scene. He composes astonishing music and plays many instruments; among them the seldom heard ‘C’ Melody saxophone. He has frequently collaborated with greats like Marilyn Crispell. Next is Tom Callwood who is often a collaborator of Henderson’s. If you needed a peg to hang his bass playing on, then you might say that he has a Charlie Haden sound (early Haden). He is one of the finer bass players I’ve heard and it’s our loss that he doesn’t live in Auckland. Anthony Donaldson is another hero from the alternative and avant-garde music scene. He’s known for his interactive, sensitive and melorhythmic approach (OK, I made that word up). He is acknowledged as one of New Zealand’s finest drummers and his influence is widespread. Joining the above-mentioned artists for the second set was guitarist and experimental musician Daniel Beban. He is the current Douglas Lilburn Research Fellow and is also at the forefront of the Wellington experimental music scene. His ‘Orchestra of the Spheres’ takes SunRa’s approach to a new level.

Melancholy/Stinging Babes: Jeff Henderson (baritone, alto, C melody, tenor saxes, clarinet). Tom Callwood (upright bass), Anthony Donaldson (drums), Daniel Beban (guitar). The gig was held at Anthology, K’Road Auckland, CJC Creative Jazz Club, 17 July 2019. 

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Review, Small ensemble, Straight ahead

Lucien Johnson + 5

a2788670674_16.jpgThe eponymously titled album ‘Lucian Johnson+5’ was first released in 2016 and has recently been re-released in Japan on vinal. I have only encountered Johnson performing once or twice as he has spent a lot of time outside of New Zealand. He was born in Wellington, but led an interesting life elsewhere, travelling the world with various innovative bands and living for long periods in Paris. I first encountered him when he toured with ‘The Troubles; a delightfully anarchic folksy ensemble he co-founded along with Scottish Jazz drummer John Rae. After hearing Lucien Johnson+5, I will be paying close attention to his futures offerings.

I became aware of the album’s existence soon after its release, but carelessly lost the Bandcamp access code when I changed computers. I finally regained access, listened and was immediately impressed. This is a mature piece of work with real depth. Given the diversity of experience, the musicians bring to the project that is hardly surprising.  Johnson’s musicianship and compositional abilities are well known – pare him with these five musicians and you get something special. Any project involving Crayford, French, O’Connor, Van Dijk and Callwood is going to grab the attention.

There is a certain mood emanating from this album, a palpable sense of the Iberian Peninsula. It is more than just the track names – it cuts far deeper than that. You will not hear overt Jazz Flamenco or Moorish tunes. You will hear reflective ballads, Latin, hard swing and all with fine arrangements (arrangements which evoke the hay-day of the classic Jazz ensemble). The album warmly invites us to engage, and the deeper we engage the greater the reward. The musicians were clearly onboard with the project and each of them gets a chance to shine. There are many wonderful solos, none that are too long and each solo harnessing to the spirit of the collective. Brilliant musicians all, but with no egos on display.

‘Light Shaft’ has a dancy Latin feel with French and Johnson reacting to Crayford’s rhythmic accenting; Crayford later tying it all together with a masterful solo. ‘El Cid’ is another great tune, again with a Latin American flavour, this time Afro Cuban. The clave aside, it evokes the Reconquista hero perfectly. El Cid’s is a tale well worth the re-telling; especially since modern scholars discovered that his antecedents were actually Moors, the very people he fought with such evangelistic fervour – a modern parable. ‘Zapata’ is another delightful tune and with plenty of meat on the bone.  It opens with O’Connor beating out a Krupa like rhythm on the toms, the ensemble comes in next, navigating a skillfully arranged head with nimble ease. Van Dijk and Crawford follow with stunning solos, but everyone is superb. This is a great piece of ensemble playing and above all it is fun. Here is Zapata:

My favourite from the album is ‘Asturias’. This track has a thoughtful quality and as many layers as a ripe onion. In spite of being a sextet, the ensemble sounds like a nonet at times – capturing the vibe of 50’s Gil Evans. This lies mainly in the skillful writing, as space and texture are maximised. The rich voicings of the horn line are also of importance, as they somehow manage to convey substance and airiness at the same time. Nick Van Dijk in particular, utilising the opportunity to shine through. Crayford and Callwood also have essential roles – Crayford creating a strumming effect, as Callwood did in the opening bars. Asturias is a region of northwestern Spain and also a Flamenco guitar style (a style often adapted to other instruments). Albeniz wrote in this style in the 19th century,  The melody over a strummed pedal chord (the thumb playing the melody line).

When we listen to evocative music, we bring our imagination to the experience. Whether intended by Johnson or not, this album took me back to Spain. I have travelled extensively in Andalucia and rekindling those memories through this music was a pleasure. The artwork is also superb and that is credited to George Johnson. The best place to source this album is on Bandcamp or via the Lucien Johnson website. lucienjohnson5.bandcamp.com