Audio Foundation, Beyond category, Small ensemble

Noveltones & Knotted Throats @ AF

Noveltones (7)There is a world of interesting music happening at the Audio Foundation and this three-set gig exemplified the foundations imaginative ahead of the game programming. The evening featured a cross-section of music from the fully arranged to the unconstrained and free. From the open dialogue of the Knotted Throats to the carefully crafted texturally rich four-piece voicings of a jazz ensemble. Then, and perhaps this is the essence of the programming, the two groups merged and out of that came a declaration. Sound exists without boundaries. The borders and demarcation lines as we organise or sculpt sound are only human constructs and beyond these artificial barriers, the various languages merge. When that occurs music is the richer for it. Improvised music is always on the move and just as post-bop moved seamlessly between free, fusion, hard bop, bop and groove, so the journey continues. Noveltones (3)

The Noveltones are an assembly of gifted equals, collectively shaping sound while expressing individual voices. Soprano saxophonist Jasmine Lovell-Smith, who studied in the USA is at present working toward a doctorate in composition at the NZSM. Bass clarinettist Blair Latham who spent years in Mexico is fluent with many horns. Bass player Tom Callwood (mostly playing arco), who we saw recently with the Melancholy Stinging Babes (a formidable figure on the avant-garde scene), and Tristan Carter, a violinist who rounds off the ensemble sound beautifully. The music initially reminded me of Gunter Schuller’s third stream pieces, but this ensemble is in no way time locked. The principal composer for the first set was Lovell-Smith and her compositional experience was especially evident in the harmonic concepts. There were also compositions by Latham. The pieces often balanced a spiky beauty with voice-led passages. There was also an appealing textural quality. The current ensemble hasn’t yet recorded, but I hope that they do. I have put up a Noveltones sound-clip from the gig.

The second set was another aural feast as it featured Jeff Henderson, Hermione Johnson and Tom Callwood. Henderson (on baritone saxophone) is the heavyweight of the New Zealand avant-garde scene and he never disappoints. There are few musicians who can muster such authority or draw you in as deeply. He taps into the primal essence of sound itself. Johnson is a renowned experimental musician, the foremost voyager with prepared piano, a noted composer and an organist. She is particularly known for her bold originality. Callwood, who we heard earlier, is exactly the bass player you would want in this situation. His gift for adventurous arco and extended technique was put to good use. What we heard were essentially reflective pieces; pieces tailor-made for deep listening and wonderfully mesmerising. As the motifs repeated a brooding presence hung over the room, the voice of unquiet spirits released from constraint. Happily, this is a zone located well beyond the reach of the music police. I found this set profoundly engaging and I count myself lucky to have caught it.

The last set brought both ensembles together and this time with the addition of the gifted drummer and percussionist Chris O’Connor. A great evening of music.

Noveltones (6)

For those keen to hear more of Henderson’s explorations, they can’t go wrong by accessing an album he recorded with Clayton Thomas (bass) and Darren Moore (drums). It is titled, ‘For a Clean Cut – Sharpen the Blade’. This gem was recorded in the basement of an old Auckland Church and it is a cause for rejoicing. If ‘free’ music scares you then this may not be your bag; but if it does, why? Sculpting sound is what musicians do. 

The album is on Bandcamp at iiiirecords.bandcamp.com 

The gig artists were Jasmine Lovell-Smith (soprano saxophone), Blair Latham (bass clarinet), Tom Callwood (upright bass), Tristan Carter (violin), Jeff Henderson (baritone saxophone), Hermione Johnson (prepared piano), Chris O’Connor (percussion) IMG_1256

10th October 2019 Audio Foundation, Auckland Central.

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. 

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