Recent Releases ~ February 2021

            Recent Releases ~ Feb 2021

The pandemic hasn’t stopped the music, and while it is true that the clubs, bars and concert halls are placed out of reach for many, music has the qualities of water. It will flow through the cracks until it has found its own level. The recent Kiwi lockdown was mercifully short, and in random and serendipitous ways new music found me. As always, I was happy when it did. Below are three very different albums – check them out.

Early Risers ~ John Scurry’s Reverse Swing

During our recent lockdown I received an album in the post from Lionsharecords. The album, ‘Early Risers’ is John Scurry’s Reverse Swing ensemble, his second such release.  Scurry’s earlier Reverse Swing album ‘Post Matinee’ was showered with praise, with one American reviewer describing it as ‘Ellingtonian’. The 2020 album has 19 original tunes spread over two CD’s and we are invited to view each volume as distinct but complementary.  

Having recently travelled to New Orleans, I detected those influences in this band immediately. When you spend any time in NOLA, you realise that that city’s influences are very broad indeed. Everything from swing to soulful gator-funk, from Sun Ra to the various free jazz offshoots. It is a living, breathing up to the minute music and one with its own flavour. So it is with ‘Early Risers’, and with this album there are also a multiplicity of rich local influences.

I loved the album for its warmth and approachability. It is instantly engaging, but this is not a nostalgic romp. There is real depth here and many treasures are revealed to the deep listener. The interplay between the musicians is simply stunning and their time feel beyond caveat. Track one on the first album is my favourite and while comparisons can be odious, this gave me the same feeling as I had when first hearing the Cy Touff Octet & Quintet album. Perhaps there is even a hint of ‘West Coast’ as well – Sheldon ?

There are many moods and whether a gentle ballad or a hotter number, all contribute uniquely to the whole. Underpinning each number are the quiet urgings of leader John Scurry’s guitar. We hear swing style guitar infrequently these days and more’s the pity. The tunes here were all penned by Scurry and he is also the co-arranger and producer. He has been a popular feature of the Australian scene for many years and I wonder what took him so long to launch this particular project.  to listen go to Early Risers Lionsharecords

The other arranger (and horn arranger) is trumpeter Eugene Ball.  Ball is another veteran of the Melbourne scene and a Bell award winner. I associate him with the moderism of Andrea Keller. Here you are overwhelmed by the richness of his sound. His tone production is often reminiscent of the latter-day swing trumpeters like Harry Sweets’ Edison and Henry ‘Red’ Alan. 

I have also encountered James McCauley, and again I associate him with Keller. He is perfect in these very different rolls. The band members here are John Scurry (guitar, arrangements), Eugene Ball (trumpet, arrangements), Brennan Hamilton-Smith (clarinet),  Stephen Grant (alto sax), Matt Boden (piano) Howard Cairns (bass), Danny Fischer (drums), + Sam Keevers (piano). The textures, tunes and uncanny interplay render this a terrific album. It may have its roots in traditional swing, but I defy anyone, whatever their taste in jazz, not to love this. It is released on Julien Wilson’s lionsharecords.com and on bandcamp. All art-work by John Scurry.

Wax///Wane ~ Lucien Johnson

Wax///Wane was released over summer and I’ve just caught up with it. I am always keen to check out gigs or albums featuring Lucien Johnson, so I downloaded it on Bandcamp. There was no information about the band or the recording on the album page, but my ears began to fill in the gaps. John Bell had to be the vibes player, surely it was him (an online search confirmed that)? Few south of the equator punch out modal grooves quite as convincingly as Bell. Of the remaining four musicians, two were known to me and two not. Michelle Velvin was on harp, Tom Callwood on upright bass, Cory Champion on drums and Riki Piripi on percussion (listed under the undividual tks).  

The album features six compositions and each of these has an evanescent quality. They hint at places we think we might know, but can’t quite remember. Blue Rain, Forest Rendezvous, and Rubicon appear as if in a dream and as with the missing liner notes, we are encouraged to fill in the gaps with our imagination. 

Blue Rain

Johnson has chosen his bandmates well. Bell and Callwood are genre defying and have open-ears, and as with Johnson are well immersed in the freer regions of improvised music. I have seen Cory Champion several times, but never heard him in this context; very impressive. Adding a harp player and percussionist added texture in finely hued layers, and this gave the album that delightful Alice Coltrane feel. It’s great to see the harp revived as an improvisers instrument and especially with the vibes. They could get in each others way, but in skilled hands this is avoided and a shimmering pulse arises to good effect.

Johnson is a musician we most often associate with the Wellington scene, but these days he is perhaps better termed an international musician. Like all modern saxophonists, there is a foundation of Coltrane in his sound. There is also an airy freedom. Here, he has curated a groove fest. The sort of grooves that Bobby Hutcherson, Alice and John Coltrane, Julian Priester and others explored. It is what might be loosely termed spiritual Jazz. Music defying the mundane, an invitation to a better place where gravity is abandoned. In times like this we need music, and actually, we need more music like this. Music that stimulates the imagination and doesn’t preach.  The playing here is superb but don’t over think the experience, sink into it and enjoy the trip.  The cover-art is by Julien Dyne. Available on Bandcamp Lucienjohnson.bandcamp.com

Alan Broadbent/Georgia Mancio  ~ ‘Quiet is the Star’

Alan Broadbent has an unerring ear for melody and this is in part, why he makes such a sensitive accompanist. While his albums can really swing, they also take direct aim at the heart. An astonishing technical mastery is evident but it is never allowed to obscure the essence of a tune. To put it more simply, he connects us to real emotions and to human life with its manifest joys and frailties. There are innumerable facets to his long and formidable career and none should be overlooked. 

Most recently, he released ‘Trio in Motion’ his second album with bassist Harvie S and drummer Billie Mintz. And if you haven’t done so before now, check out his discography, a body of work that astounds; critically acclaimed albums, two Grammys and so it goes. The man is a legend. 

‘Quiet is the Star’ is the second album from the Broadbent/Mancio duo. Their last album’ Songbook’ aired in 2017 and it was pure delight; this new release is a welcome follow up. Georgia Mancio is a London-based award-winning vocalist and lyricist and the pairing has reaped dividends.  They have performed together since 2013 and toured Europe and elsewhere to acclaim. 

Mancio has a lovely voice and she uses it to great effect, her emphasis though is on breathing life into her lyrics. The stories she reveals are intimate and she invites the listener to share in these experiences. While all good duos are conversational, here we are invited in on the conversation and it is a privilege.   Released by Roomspin Records 27 March. Cover artwork Simon Manfield.

JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association. some of these posts also appear in other music sites. When purchasing, please support the Bandcamp platform whenever possible. Respect musicians rights.  

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.

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. 

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