Richard Thai was on the first JAC album but by the time I saw the ensemble live he had left New Zealand for America to complete his postgraduate studies. Recently he returned to his hometown of Wellington where he now teaches and leads the Richard Thai 5. While the ensemble is a basic line up of saxophone, piano, guitar, bass and drums it is never the less forward-looking. This is post millennial music.
The set list on Wednesday featured Thai’s compositions. The well constructed tunes had an attractive ebb and flow, but behind the arranged heads and often lingering melody, lay obscured complexity. This is the type of material that can sorely test a band but under his quiet guidance they delivered. There are few hard edges to Thais sound, but he is unafraid to reach deep inside a solo; probing until it yields more. He is above all a confident player and in spite of his very even delivery, he conveys a lot of information. The best illustration of this was heard in his second tune, ‘Capricorn’. A marvellous composition. Like much of Thai’s material it has powerful hooks to draw you in. What sounds simple is in truth anything but, as it shifts between major and minor keys with disarming ease. Many tunes do this, but with Capricorn the device is extraordinarily well conceived. The shifts in focus are pleasing, but what sets the tune apart is a sweet over-arching dissonance; diminished chords acting as a bridge to carry you across the major-minor divide. The arranged head is especially tantalising; setting the listener up expectantly for the explorations that promise to follow.Capricorn’s momentum is that of a multi-hued butterfly in a tropical storm; pushing against the cross winds, never losing its way, pulse, or sense of purpose. Thai’s tenor picks at the tune, peeling the layers back, exposing the heart. This contrasts with pianist Matt Steele’s oblique approach. Steele clearly took the difficult route and along the way it yielded gold. You were with him note by note as he undid the knots of the puzzle confronting him. Steele is always an interesting pianist and always one to watch. It is his determination, his preparedness to take risks and his ability to learn on the bandstand that marks him out from many of his peers. He grows as an artist each time I see him. The last to solo on Capricorn was guitarist Callum Allardice. After the long complex solos preceding his, he wisely chose to linger nearer to the melody. His tight elliptical figures rounding out the earlier solos and bringing us gradually back to the outro. His time to shine as soloist came on the last number where his guitar soared as if free of gravity (much to the delight of the audience). Allardice has many fans in Auckland.The remaining two band members Shuan Anderson and Scott Maynard are also established musicians from the Wellington area. Anderson (like Allardice) was also a member of the Tui nominated JAC and he has played at the CJC before. A responsive drummer who interacted well and picked up on the subtle nuances of the material. The bass player Scott Maynard has been a member of various leading Wellington units (e.g. Myele Manzanza, Lex French). He has played at the CJC before and he never disappoints. His role in giving a heart beat to this often complex material was vital. I look forward to hearing more of this ensemble and above all I would like to some hear more Thai compositions. With a few more years of performance under their belt the unit could achieve even more.
Richard Thai 5 – Richard Thai (tenor saxophone), Callum Allardice (guitar), Matt Steele (piano), Scott Maynard (bass), Shaun Anderson (drums).
CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland on 9th December 2015
It is always good when proved right and in the case of Matt Steele I certainly was. This was a superb gig and it confirmed the promise that I saw in Steele as a first year student. The ‘Master Brewers’ musicians are exactly what Steele needed at this stage in his development and he is clearly what they needed. There is a cohesion about this group and it extends beyond the music. This is a band of friends and because they spend a significant amount of time together, they are able to dive deeper into the material on hand. Most of the band is writing and being familiar with each others styles, they contribute compositions that serve the project well. Younger musicians often favour shorter term projects but I hope this unit continues for a while. When I last saw Steele perform it was at his honours recital and he was very much in charge. Now as leader, the reins are subtly loosened and the music benefits from this. With experience, leaders can confidently guide without over playing the role. That only works when the interactions and cues become second nature. In their best moments the ‘Master Brewers’ acted as a single entity; everyone maximising their options while retaining an awareness of the others.I immediately noticed that Steele’s voicings were darker. His interesting harmonic approach an outcome of an ever-growing musical maturity. There are certain aspects to Steele’s playing that stand out and during the gig these crystallised in my mind. These attributes are why I follow his career so attentively. He is self-effacing by nature, but that masks a ruthless striving for betterment. Ever reaching further, listening deeply, critically and taking risks. For all that he able to relax into the moment and as he grows musically this is more evident. The most difficult journey for any musician is finding a distinctive style and owning it. Steele is well on the way.Thanks to Roger Manins programming, Auckland audiences get to see good Wellington bands every few months. In this case the audience were unfamiliar with the musicians (apart from Steele), but what a treat this gig was. The band won us over quickly and by the time the second set began they were cooking. In spite of the modernistic approach and complex time signatures these guys have a definite pulse. They swing like crazy.Ashton Sellars had suffered a mishap with his guitar and he had to borrow one at short notice for the gig. He told me that it felt very different to his own older instrument, but no one would have guessed it by the way he was playing. Under his fingers the instrument sang. He favours longer fluid lines (with a hint of Bauer/Tristano), but his is very much a modern sound. His improvisations are thoughtful and they invite you along. While their music is often complex there is no ballast of needless weighty intellectualism. Piano and guitar keeping nicely apart unless comping in support. Both understanding when to lay out. Once again cohesion and a sense of common purpose drives themJohnny Lawrence played upright bass, maintaining the core rhythm duties. While he held the pulse intact, he could also solo very effectively. Like his band mates he fitted into the mix in exactly the right way. Cory Campion was also a strong presence, often giving colour or providing accents. Above all his compositions were strong. There is an increasing trend for drummers to compose and when they write like this it provides an interesting perspective. Drummers write differently and the ones I hear lately, write very well. Steele and Sellars contributed the most tunes and each wrote in their own distinctive style. Together those charts and this band gave us pure enjoyment.
Master Brewers: Matt Steele (Leader, Piano), Ashston Sellars (guitar), Johnny Lawrence (bass), Cory Champion (drums) CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 8th July 2015