Wayne Shorter Quartet – beyond the time/space continuum

Shorter 099When we talk about Wayne Shorter’s music we immediately run into obstacles. Wayne is like a Zen Master, deliberately confounding our every expectation. To begin such a journey our rational minds need emptying. As the journey unfolds we move beyond comforting reference points; this requires a letting go, real courage. The 2016 Wayne Shorter band is a musical ‘Voyager’, a spacecraft assembled out of earthly components, but sending encrypted sonic messages from an unknown place. What is on offer is a shared journey – but only if we are brave enough. Once you commit there is no looking back.

To attempt a detailed description of a concert like this is utterly pointless. Only the ears, eyes, spiritual mind, can evaluate this experience. That is the point – you have to be there – really be there – engaged – then let go. All I can say is how lucky I feel to have seen this band twice in my life. Once in a Roman amphitheatre in Verona Italy during the ‘Standards Live’ 2002 tour. Now 14 years later almost to the day, at the Wellington 2016 Jazz festival. The same band, Wayne Shorter, Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade. Immortals all. Back in 2002, the band unbundled tunes from Wayne’s long career – a career always advancing beyond the edge. It sounded brave and edgy back then. On this tour, he transcended those earlier reference points. Yes, there was form, even charts; just as a spacecraft has a shell. Inside the craft, the band moved freely in the weightless air.

This tends to confound some critics, people who need firm ground beneath their feet. A few have even puzzled over the constant adjustment of saxophone mouthpiece and neck. The perpetual adjustment phenomenon is common to all great saxophonists – it is a manifestation of the never-ending journey deep into sound. In the marvelously written Cook & Morton Penguin Jazz Guide, the word elided appears when describing Wayne’s sound. He often puts the saxophone to his mouth, then pauses and takes it out again – interpreting this or his frequent adjustments as uncertainty is missing the point entirely. The dictionary definition of Elision is; deliberately omitting components of speech or sound. When taken to its logical conclusion the remaining sounds (or letters) become a code. A code we must decipher unaided.

I think it was Lee Konitz who said. ‘Old men should play like old men. When I hear them trying to play like their young selves it sounds wrong’. Old men have important things to say from the viewpoint of life experience. Wayne played like his older self, wiser, braver and unafraid to show vulnerability. I am glad that he did.

After the gig, I spoke to a number of musicians. Almost all were in a deeply reflective mood, basking in the experience. Dixon Nacey a prominent New Zealand Jazz guitarist said to me. Man, I was thinking of you in there and wondering how you could find adequate words to review that? Of course, I can’t.

Dixon and I decided to walk a while, needing to clarify our thoughts. We walked the back streets, weighing it all up, sometimes discussing a particular facet, seeking to understand the importance of what we had seen and heard. Dixon said at one point, “I found that I needed to abandon my trained musician’s brain, the brain that looks for fixed rhythmic, melodic or harmonic structures. A profound lesson I learned from this was, if you decide not to come in, to lay out in unexpected places, that is OK. Trusting another band member to pick up the thread”. There were probably mistakes and this also created deep connections. This music is humanism personified. That vulnerable sound that Wayne emits from his horns is his Bodhisattva voice – it can confront precisely because it is so human.

All worthwhile journeys lead back to the start point, a place where art, imaginings, and life merge. We already understand this music, we just need reminding. Shorter 099 (2)Wellington Jazz Festival 2016, Opera House, Manners Street, Wellington

Brian Smith @ CJC Jazz April gig

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It is always great to see the renowned tenor player Brian Smith performing in the intimate space of the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) and whenever he plays older and newer fans turn up to see him.   While it is tempting to refer to him as being ‘seasoned’ or ‘an elder statesman’, any notion of that has a built-in redundancy factor.   He is a ball of energy and ageless on the bandstand.

Brian has played with so many great artists over his long career that it would chew up serious bandwidth to enumerate even half of them.  Being a member of the Maynard Ferguson band and numerous other well-known line-ups saw him playing across the world.    His co-led genre stretching ‘Nucleus’ (with Ian Carr) won the top European band award at the Montreux Jazz Festival (1970).  Since returning to New Zealand to settle (if a musician ever really does that) he has worked on numerous film scores and put out some well received (and commercially successful) albums.  IMG_6561 - Version 2

Accompanying him on the 10th April gig were Kevin Field (piano), Kevin Haines (bass) and Frank Gibson Jr (drums).    With this particular lineup he could dive deeper into his favoured repertoire of Hard Bop Jazz standards (with a few originals thrown in).  When ‘Footprints’ was played Brian Smith approached the warhorse in an interestingly oblique manner; giving us a tune that contained the merest hint of familiarity and a large dollop of brooding mystery.  This was a highpoint of the sets and a good example of how good musicians can extract new wine from old bottles.  The introduction began with a very personalised statement on tenor which caught the attention while offering no insight into where it was going.  Then out of nowhere the melody was stated, only to disappear as quickly as it had appeared; merged in probing re-haromonisations and oblique explorations.

The tunes of Wayne Shorter have remained perennially popular with Jazz audiences and they are constantly being reworked and updated.  I have heard two versions of ‘Footprints’ performed in recent weeks and both mixed the familiar with the the new.  These re-workings of familiar tunes have always been the bread & butter of Jazz and in the case of reworked ‘Footprints,’ Wayne Shorter sets the bar high.  I saw him perform this in Verona, Italy a few years ago and after laying out a pathway to the melody he suddenly plunged us into a world of elision; forcing us to fill in the gaps as we listened.  A familiar tune floating between chasms of crystalline emptiness; a tune more implied than played.   I have posted a You Tube clip of the Brian Smith band playing  ‘Footprints’  at the 10th April CJC gig.

IMG_6564 - Version 3Accompanying Brian on piano was Kevin Field who is so well-respected about town that he is a real drawcard in his own right.   I have often mentioned his ability to add value to any band he plays with and this night was no exception (A post on his April 17th gig will be up shortly).  On bass was Kevin Haines who is not only the most experienced bass player about town but one of the best.  lastly there was Frank Gibson Jr on drums who is another respected and talented veteran Jazz identity about Auckland.     Frank Gibson Jr, Kevin Field and Kevin Haines have all appeared recently leading groups.  These guys will always impress and they proved that on this gig.

This particular CJC gig fitted in perfectly with the wider Jazz April ethos which is about profiling Jazz & Improvised music in all its diversity.    The month had kicked off with a co-led trio featuring guitar, bass and drums (all original music by Samsom/Nacey/Haines), A few days later we saw Nathan Haines at the ‘Q’ Theatre (a tentet complete with French horns and vibes) – a few days after that the Auckland ‘Jazz & Blues club’ featured a gig with a Caribbean-Jazz ensemble. The Kevin Field trio on the 17th.  Auckland benefits from a rich sonic diversity and clubs like the CJC, The Auckland Jazz & Blues Club and Vitamin ‘S’ deserve our ongoing support.  The month of Jazz April will conclude with two avant-garde bands (one local, the ‘Kparty Spoilers of Utopia’) at Vitamin ‘S’ on the 23rd at 8pm and one visiting from Australia (Song FWAA) which is a CJC gig on the 24th at 8pm.   This is a cornucopia of riches and not one of these gigs should be missed.  Note: The Vitamin ‘S’ gig is the last chance to see John Bell vibist, who departs for Korea on Thursday.

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Who: the Brian Smith Quartet – Brian Smith (tenor), Kevin Field (piano), Kevin Haines (bass), Frank Gibson Jr (drums)

Where and When: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Building, Brittomart 10th April 2013

This is a Jazz April 2013 gig : links Jazz April or Jazz Journalists Assn FB page.

Steve Barry – PJ Koopman Quartet

We had been expecting the official release of Tom Dennisons ‘Zoo’ album but instead we got two musicians from that group in a new and exciting configuration.   While we were saddened that the ‘Zoo’ date was postponed, we could not complain as we were treated to a slice of Jazz heaven under the skillful co-leadership of Steve Barry and P J Koopman.

I make no bones about my enthusiasm for Steve Barry’s piano as I have heard him and reviewed him twice before.    Steve was back in town for two gigs only and the first of them under the leadership of premier Australian drummer Andrew Dickeson, had been a success by any measure.   This time Steve was appearing as co-leader and so many of his own compositions got an airing.  He and the much respected guitarist P J Koopman were also able to stretch out on some well-chosen and seldom heard compositions gleaned from the Jazz song book.

The other two quartet members were Oli Holland (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums).    This dream lineup gave us our moneys worth and a whole lot more.

The first number was the 1935 Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein classic ‘I’ve Told Every Little Star’.   It started with the bones of the melody and swiftly evolved into a swinging medium tempo number.  The composition should perhaps be credited to a small melodic bird, as it came to Kern when he heard a rare finch with a beautiful name singing on his windowsill (Melospiza Melodia).  It was also the last thing Kern sang from his death-bed.   In the hands of this band both bird and composer could not have failed to appreciate the updating.

The next number was a rendition of the moody atmospheric ‘Mantra’ by Kendrick Scott.   This is the perfect vehicle for guitar and piano and its deep penetrating lines were used to advantage by the band.    It is also a number where the drums (with mallets) and bass can be brought right up in the mix and this was certainly not a band to miss such an opportunity.  As they moved through the set list the audience were transfixed.  The guitarist PJ Koopman was at his best that night and it was a joy to see how well he and Steve Barry interacted.    An imperative for piano/guitar configurations is for each to keep out of the others way and they did that instinctively as they have played together over many years.   With a tasteful drummer like Ron Samsom and a skillful bassist like Oli Holland underpinning the chordal instruments, it was never going to be anything but satisfying.

As the set progressed they played two of Steve’s compositions – ‘Untitled 3’ and ‘Unconscious-Lee’.    The latter composition was dedicated to Lee Konitz and his tune ‘Subconscious-Lee’ which he so famously played with Warne Marsh.   It was here that we saw Steve’s writing skills come to the fore and above all experienced the fluidity of P J’s guitar.   I have often been told by guitarists how difficult this Lenny Tristano stuff is to do.   Long unison lines performed to metronome like timing (Tristano hated flashy drummers and famously said that his preference was for a metronome as time-keeper – he would not have minded Ron I’m sure).  There are real subtleties in this music and in lessor hands the message could have been subsumed in the detail.  P J and Steve ran their lines perfectly and when I closed my eyes I could hear an echo of Billy Beaur (g) and Lenny Tristano (p).

The last set begun with ‘Parks’ (Steve Barry) and I have heard him play this before. The tune had stuck fast in my head from the first time I heard it and so I had always wanted to know more about it. It was composed as a tribute to Aaron Parks during a period in which Steve had been listening to a lot of his music (you can find Aaron on the ‘James Farm’ albums along with top rated ex-pat kiwi bassist Matt Penman – sampled on Sound Cloud). Once again Ron Samsom used his mallets to great advantage with Oli Holland’s bass lines weaving skillfully throughout. I will never tire of hearing this complex but satisfying tune.

It was probably the penultimate number of the night which will linger longest in the minds of the audience. A friend commented on how utterly beautiful it was and cursed the fact that her bus was due to leave before the number was finished. The tune was a medley beginning with ‘Iris’ (Wayne Shorter) and segueing into ‘Clusters’ by Steve Barry. It was a good choice on so many levels as it was a more reflective number; allowing the band to showcase their melodic skills, improvisational skills and mastery of the Jazz vocabulary. This was a tune where the subtlety of the exchanges between guitar, piano, drums and bass was paramount. To maintain subtlety while stretching out is always a hard ask but they managed it perfectly. Of note were PJ with his stunningly beautiful chord work and Ron Samsom with his colourist mallet work. Ron is one of our best Kiwi drummers and certainly my favourite. Like all good drummers he understands that less is sometimes more and he is extremely tuneful. I watch his moves closely on gigs and to see him use all parts of the stick or mallet (and even use a beer bottle rolled across the cymbal) is fascinating.

Steve Barry has just been awarded a scholarship and so he will be extremely busy in Sydney over the next three years. What with that and giging his timetable will be full but we hope that he will remember his home town and visit as often as he is able. P J Koopman next returns to NZ to perform at the Tauranga Jazz festival and we look forward to that.

Other tunes performed were ‘P J B’ by Sean Wayland, ‘Cyclic Episode’ by Sam Rivers and ‘Cheryl’ by Charlie Parker.

As our best and brightest move offshore others step up in their place – Sam, Eli (and friend Rachel) gave us a taste of that in the late night Jam session following the gig.

Oli Holland & Ron Samsom (all photography by John Fenton)

Brian Smith Band & Hard Bop heaven

Brian Smith - CJC gig

To list all of the famous artists that Brian Smith has accompanied in the Jazz/Soul/Pop world would make this a very long post. To name a few (Soul) Gladys Knight & the Pips, Dusty Springfield, (Jazz) Jon Hendricks, Annie Ross, Nat Adderly, Mark Murphy. Brian was also a founder member of ‘Nucleus’ with Ian Carr. He was for many years one of our most successful Jazz/Soul exports but in 1980 he returned to New Zealand. His ‘Moonlight Sax’ (1990) went platinum, was the album of the year and sold over 40,000 copies which is astounding for a Kiwi Album.

Last night this Jazz icon played at the CJC and with him were a number of well-known New Zealand Jazz musicians. The band was; Brian Smith (tenor sax, soprano sax), Kevin Field (piano), Kevin Haines (double bass), Frank Gibson Jnr (drums). They started with one of Brian’s own compositions titled ‘Blues for Teo‘ and the band got down to serious business immediately. They are a hard swinging unit and as they unpicked the tunes they wove a collective magic.

Brian was a commanding presence in the mix (which was hardly surprising) but his band-mates could not be faulted either for their ability to shine beside him. It struck me (and not for the first time) just how strong a presence Kevin Haines is. He and Frank were obviously on comfortable ground and they pushed boundaries because they could, and because they found new and interesting things to say. I have seldom heard Frank play better. Kevin Field is a very popular and talented local pianist and to have him in any band is simply to have the best. His crisp chord work and soaring solos are never less than perfect.

Jazz Musicians are often natural comedians and Brian is no exception. When introducing the second tune he said, “the band will practice for four bars and by then we should have a hang of it”. The tune was a George Chisholm original and in spite of the intro we heard no missteps. The tune ‘Seriously flawed (floored?)‘ was the first of a number of new charts by George Chisholm. These were great vehicles for the band and when they played the lovely Chisholm ballad ‘One for Martin‘ they struck the mother-lode. This piece was penned in remembrance of the much-loved Kiwi Jazz guitarist Martin Winch who died in May of this year. It was suggested to me recently that we only have the sudden influx of very promising Jazz guitarists around Auckland because of Martin’s influence and example.

This and other Chisholm tunes deserve to be played often (plea to local musicians). * George is a well-known trumpeter from the local scene having recorded in his own right and as a sideman with locals like Phil Broadhurst.

We heard fresh versions of standards like ‘My Funny Valentine‘ and best of all a few Wayne Shorter tunes. The darkly brooding and deep Shorter compositions are favourites of mine and any group who attempts them and executes them well has my appreciation. The groups rendition of ‘Black Nile‘. ‘Lester Leaves Town‘ and ‘Speak no Evil‘ were well done and as these are difficult tunes to get inside of, they must be commended.