Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The soothing sounds of Connie Crothers and Hayden Chisholm

On select nights over the past couple of weeks, Hadyen Chisholm's Circe (Jazz Haus Musik) and Connie Crothers' Music from Everyday Life (New Artists) have been doing the late night rounds as I drift off to sleep. Both are albums I return to often, particularly when the mind needs calming.
New Artists Records Jazz Haus Musik

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

NZ Jazz: Vibrant Tongues - The Shadow Out of Time

Vibrant Tongues: The Shadow Out of Time
Blair Latham (ts) Tom Callwood (b) Reuben Bradley (d) 2006


Up until now, this project has focussed on filling some gaps in my listening. So I why did I choose an album that wasn't new to me? Aside from it's nice to revisit albums once in a while, I don't really know. Somewhere along the way the CD developed a glitch on the last two tracks but thankfully it ripped onto the computer without a problem. I pulled a pile of NZ jazz albums off the shelf and for whatever reason, here we are, with The Shadow Out of Time.

Reuben Bradley Blair Latham Tom Callwood
I remember listening to this album quite a bit after picking it up at the CD release gig (at Happy) but it has been a long time between listens. I couldn't really remember any specifics, but the overall vibe – a dark quality, yet energetic – was still firmly in my mind. It was the more up tempo pieces that had left that impression. I hadn't remembered the ballads being as strong, but I gave them a closer listen this time around and they went down nicely. They offset the more outwardly energetic pieces and bring variety to the album that I had forgotten. Blair and Reuben share the composition duties (with five and three respectively) and there is plenty of continuity between the two, creating a nice flow to the album.

At times the Tom Callwood's bass is a little low in the mix or it's probably more of a case of the tenor being too high. It could lead a listener to miss some of the subtleties of the important role he plays in the trio. On the upside in did cause me to tune in to the bass more closely. Mixing broken time, walking and double stops provides a welcome disjointed feel to “Mad Uncle” with the drums joining in as the sax swings along energetically. Around the 2 minute mark on “I Dare Hear” there are some nice, somewhat unexpected bass interjections that popped out at me. Tom's solo on “3 4 5” sets up the transition back into the final melody statement (this time taking a rubato approach – nice touch). Much like his work on “Asturias” on West of the Sun (see the last post in the series), the solo bass intro on “Search In Progress” does a great job of establishing the tone of the piece. The ostinatos (with variations) are an important factor in “Shimmering Sunset” and “Wanna Get Happy?” Not one for flashy pyrotechnic displays, Callwood is a creative accompanist and soloist who gets to the essence of the compositions and I find that makes far more interesting and enjoyable listening.

Back in my alto days (daze?), I remember being a little disappointed when Blair made the switch from alto to tenor, but that seems a long time ago now (I guess it was in the early 2000s). The album opens with “Make It Quicker” and Blair comes straight out of the blocks full steam ahead (and Rueben latches on to Blair’s energy throughout).Blair's playing contains a certain quirkiness that I find very appealing (and the quirkiness doesn't become gimmicky). His tone is resonant (vibrant) with a bit of bark and well as a cry. At times a vocal quality comes to the fore. The growl is well integrated into the overall sound and doesn't really sound like it is just pasted on (“and now it's time to growl”). Instead, it's part of the natural development of the line and feeling (I feel even Coleman Hawkins fell into the trap and overdid it). There is an exuberance to his time feel (almost a bubblyness) which makes for an interesting contrast with the darker qualities of the music. On “Wanna Get Happy” his lines are scattered and energetic and his tone almost splits as he attacks notes on “I Dare Hear” whilemixing up a swinging swagger with darting double time lines to great affect. There's even a little atmospheric bass clarinet during the intro of “Shimmering Sunset” before he switches to tenor for a very well-paced solo to round out the album.
I haven't heard Blair live for quite some time and he hasn't recorded all that much (this is the only recording I have and I must seek out others). But listening to The Shadow Out of Time has made me want to hear more. He doesn't really sound like any other saxophonist that I can think of..... and if this music is about developing a personal sound and approach then Blair is ticking those boxes. It's definitely not your garden variety, clean, generic modern tenor playing.

Reuben has established himself as one of the top jazz drummers in the country but I'm afraid to say that I haven't had a close listen to much of his recorded work. I'm keen to listen to Shark Variations (with Roger Manins and Brett Hirst) to hear him in another sax/bass/drums setting some 10 years after The Shadow Out of Time. At times he can quite busy but without cluttering or dominating even as he builds intensity throughout a piece as on “Wanna Get Happy?” On “Shimmering Sunset” he draws out some different colors and there's airiness to his playing that remains present throughout, even if only hinted at, as the piece develops. These days Reuben is based in Australia but hopefully he gets back regularly as I've always found him to be a positive force in the NZ jazz community. In fact, he played (with Blair) while I was back but I was unable to get along. Next time!

While this series was originally about discovering new music, revisiting The Shadow Out of Time has been time well spent – I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed this album.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Arthur Street Loft Orchestra

New Zealand Jazz
Lucien Johnson
While I was back home I wanted to check out some live music. On the short list was the series organized by my friend Jake Baxendale - The Arthur Street Loft Orchestra. And it just so happened that my visit coincided with the series featuring the music of my friends Jasmine, Lucien and Jake. While the name implies a single unit, the series actually features various large ensembles utilizing a rotating cast of players, showcasing the works of local composers. This Monday night series has been going 12 weeks and so far he was the series booked through the end of September, but is confident he can keep it running until the end of the year. The Arthur Street Loft Orchestra is a welcome addition as it fills a gap in the Wellington scene, which hasn't had much room for regular performances by large ensembles - especially ones presenting original music.

It was nice to hear people writing music for large ensembles outside of the standard 16(ish)-piece big band line up in terms of both instrumentation and conception. First up was a large ensemble led by Lucien Johnson - five saxophones, two trumpets, two trombones, and rhythm plus Lucien on synth (and he played some soprano too). Unsurprisingly, Lucien came up with something a little different – a synth and bass driven big band sound. Normally I wouldn't like the bass as prominent in the mix for a big band but for this music it really worked. And it was nice to hear “Light Shaft” and “Asturias” from West of the Sun arranged for a larger group. The playing was enthusiastic, even if they were a little underprepared (yet delightfully so!).
New Zealand Jazz
Jasmine Lovell-Smith and Jake Baxendale

The following week I got along to an evening of music written by Jasmine Lovell-Smith & Jake Baxendale played by a ten-piece lineup consisting of rhythm section and six horns (2 brass and 4 saxes with a couple of doubles). It was advertised as a “chamber jazz” group, I'm not really sure I would have picked that descriptor. But based on that, I was it expecting something more on the quiet side – largely acoustic, light, subtle, brushes, weaving lines, etc. (although perhaps the acoustics at The Third Eye may not be suitable to such an approach). And while it didn't really check all of those boxes, it didn't stop me from enjoying the music. 

I was not surprised to see plenty of new (younger) faces on the bandstand, but I was surprised that I didn't really know anyone in the audience (both gigs we pretty well attended) - compare this to when I was home last year I knew about 75% of the crowd at a gig of Jasmine's. This time round the average age was older too. I'm not sure what to put it down to - Monday night perhaps... or maybe because it's more expensive than most gigs around town. But it's a nice atmosphere, so if you're in Wellington on a Monday night check out the Arthur Street Loft Orchestra at The Third Eye. To quote Jake, “the only other gig in town on Monday is the folk jam at the Welsh Dragon, and that used to be a public toilet.”

Friday, June 29, 2018

NZ Jazz: Lucien Johnson + 5 - West of the Sun


Lucien Johnson + 5: West of the Sun 

Johnson (ts) Lex French (trpt) Nick Van Dijk (trb) Jonathan Crayford (p) Tom Callwood (b) Chris O'Connor (d) 2016
New Zealand Jazz
I still find it tricky writing about recordings when I know many of the individual's involved (whether they be teachers, colleagues, friends... or all of the above as is the case here). As a result, this post almost got put on hold - but here it is!

I've known Lucien almost 20 years. When I started music school it was immediately clear that he was one of the better musician's around (and he knew what that place was about). I remember being blown away hearing him play Warne Marsh's solo on “All The Things You Are” (from the Copenhagen trio recordings) and his and arrangements and compositions were always interesting. He spoke his mind (and ruffled some feathers) but I always found him approachable and a great source for listening suggestions (it was Lucien who encouraged me to check out Steve Lacy).

Although Lucien hasn't recorded a ton, there is plenty of variety in his output - The Night's Plutonian Shore, Stinging Nettles, Captain Blood (I haven't heard the latter in ages) are all very different. So was it a surprise to see his latest recording change things up again and feature three horns and rhythm section playing six original compositions? Not really, but it didn't disappoint either. The opening track, “Clarion Call,” set the mood for the album and grabbed my attention. West of the Sun appears upbeat on the surface, but a darkness also is present, a combination that drew me in from the beginning. 

As with Jim Langabeer's Secret Islands, I found Lucien's choice of personnel was really on point. The sextet is comprised of players that I've heard live quite a bit and they meld together here to form a very cohesive unit. Chris O'Connor has long been one of my favourite drummers on the NZ scene and he doesn't disappoint. He gets a little room to move on the closing track, “Zapata,” but other than that, he's quite understated. However, the taste and groove is always there. Supportive and creative – it's hard to ask for more than that. 

It would have been nice to hear a little more from Nick Van Dijk as his playing mines deep and captures the essence of “Asturias.” His solo features a reaching lyricism, not a quality I hear all that often but one that I find very appealing. There have been many occasions this past month when I have looped this solo. I'd love to hear Nick get oppourtunities to be able to stretch out in this manner more often.

Lex French's tone and playing during the obbligato over the tenor and trombone on “El Cid” fits the vibe of the piece to a tee. His solo work is strong across the album and I enjoy the contrast between the tenor and trumpet in terms of color and feel. Both play some slinky lines but Lucien tends to be a bit more laid back and perhaps Lex is a little more notey. 

Sometimes I find Tom Callwood's tone is a little ampy but I enjoy his playing. “Asturias” opens with Joe strumming solo bass and he does a fine job of setting the mood. His accompaniment during Jonathan Crayford's solo on the title track hits the spot. The piano solo itself is very tasty and a study in not overstating things. Fans of jazz in New Zealand need no introduction to Crayford and it will come as no surprise that his playing is top-notch. I know he was an important part in Lucien's development so it's nice hearing them recording together. His playing here was a reminder how much I need to give a listen to his two trio albums on Rattle (more to add to the list!).

Lucien's woody, dark tone with some buzz and ring to the edges really slots into the overall vibe of the album. His solos are strong throughout as he creates weaving lines with some nice bolder melodic interjections that grab your ear. The title track (with its stripped down line-up sans trumpet and trombone) features a very mature solo that flows on very nicely from Crayford's solo. It's expressive ballad playing with no need for lots of flash – he cuts things back to the bone. The “lazy” opening phrase of his solo on “El Cid” puts a smile on my face, and it leads into a well-paced solo. His writing is also very strong and he utilizes the instrumentation to bring a depth of sound to the ensemble passages without weighing things down. It's been refreshing listening to a three-horn front line. They get a nice blend and the shout chorus between the tenor and piano solos “Light Shaft” is a very nice touch.

I was pleased to see West of the Sun amongst the finalists for Jazz Album of the Year. In my book, the LP length is a bonus as it's a great length for listening and remaining focussed. So head over to Bandcamp and pick up a copy. If Lucien has any vinyl left I might have to grab one next time I see him.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Straight Horning: Bruce Ackley Trio - The Hearing

Bruce Ackley Trio: The Hearing (Avant)

Ackley (ss) Greg Cohen (b) Joey Baron (d) 

Bruce Ackley has very much flown under my radar. Outside of the little I've heard from ROVA, this is the first album I've heard from Ackley. And after a little digging around this appears to be his only release as a leader (are there others?). I may be late to the party, but thankfully The Hearing has been getting plenty of airtime since picking it up back in May. 

Soprano Saxophone Jazz
The album was produced by John Zorn who, not for the first time, enlisted Greg Cohen (b) and Joey Baron (d) – a Zorn house rhythm section of sorts perhaps. A couple of other Zorn produced discs in my library featuring this pairing include Misha Mengelberg's No Idea and Lee Konitz's Some New Stuff and then there's Masada (I'm sure there are others too). It's a really solid pairing – swinging, creative, supportive, interactive and flexible. You can't ask for too much more really. It's a testament to their ability that the album locks right into place – I wouldn't have picked that they hadn't played with Ackley before.
Soloistically sometimes Baron is a little bombastic for me... but it's only a minor complaint and in some ways it matches Ackley's spark - and it's not out of place on pieces like “Serf Music.” Cohen's double stops on “Clear Blue Sky” grabbed my attention. He doesn't overdo it - a couple times during melody and one phrase during his solo – plus he plays very nice walking lines and melodic solo too.

The exuberance of “Out of the Box” brought Monk to mind - when I read then liner notes (I always give the album a listen first) it mentioned Herbie Nichols was the inspiration. “1, 2 and Radical 3” has a mysterious vibe. Baron shows he is much more than bombastic with lots of subtle changes behind the more dominant bass and soprano. Solo following the melody features lots of shorts phrases, pecking and jabs and some flurries, register leaps, and melodic variation. The head of the energetic blues, “Juggernaut,” has pointed feel due to Ackley's clipped articulation. But things smooth out a bit during the blowing but the energy remains throughout. I liked Baron's shift in sound/texture as he accompanies Cohen's solo before employing some trademark Baron power during the trades. Mr Mood” is a bit more reflective/introspective. There's almost a stream of conscience type thing going on, with ideas, direction and colors changing phrase to phrase yet somehow it all ties together and is very much in fitting with the melody. I couldn't help thinking of Wayne Shorter. There's plenty of interaction between the trio and at a push it could be my favourite track on the album. On the full-throttle, busy, up-tempo burn of “JT”, Ackley moves into the outer regions via the upper range. There two sides to “Syndrome”, a buoyant march that opens the work and then a more outwardly reflective (yet still inwardly driving) for the rest of the piece. I expected that they would reprise the march at the end but they don't and it really wasn't necessary. “Serf Music” features Ackley utilizing a chanter-like effect over arco bass and drums (playing a quasi-surf feel at times... Or is that the tunes title playing on my mind?). The chanter effect contorts and distorts with the addition of multiphonics and altissimo as the piece progresses. Cohen's intense arco playing really sets up the vibe of “Actual Size”, and locks in with Baron's dry cymbal for some swinging bass lines while Ackley generates an exploratory feel while still maintaining the swing. Rounding out the album is the mid-tempo “Ivan's Bell” features an angular melody that is still somewhat lyrical, and the melodicism remains for Ackley's solo. 

Ackley is definitely coming from the Lacy realm but expresses his own personality from within that sphere. He has a full-bodied, solid, robust, flexible, bold, pure soprano sound. There's evenness across the range and a he finds a nice combination of darkness/spread and focus. Ackley plays with plenty of energy and spark (slightly manic quality at times, but appealingly so). There is a probing quality to his playing that really enjoy. I think some of it is due to his time feel and busyness of his playing - he can be quite notey at times. One word that always came to mind as I listened to this was “exploratory” - like Lacy, Ackley is an explorer. 

Fellow soprano saxophone enthusiasts/fanatics, do yourself a favor and dig into The Hearing.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Recent listening: Some Ornette and Bley

Experiencing Ornette ColemanNew Zealand Music Month had me listening to a lot of jazz from back home, although towards the end of the month I started listening to selected tracks from a bunch of Ornette Coleman albums. I've been working on the melodies of "Jayne" from Something Else!!!! and "Humpty Dumpty" from This is Our Music. "What Reason" from both of the Sound Museum albums has been getting airtime (both of these albums deserve more of my attention). Ornette on Tenor is the Atlantic album that I have listened to the least, so that has been played a few times over the past week. The hook-up between Jimmy Garrison and Ed Blackwell is superb and it made me want to hear more Garrison with Ornette - coming in the form of New York is Now! (I don't have Love Call...yet). Also tickling my fancy of late has been some Paul Bley - a player never out of rotation for very long. This time round it's been a smattering of tracks from Paul Plays Carla and the Complete Savoy Sessions 1962-63. Not pictured are Song X and Tone Dialing which is where this little blast of Ornette began after I caught myself singing "Kathleen Gray" couple of times and decided to learn it. Accompanying on the train ride to work has been Michael Stephan's Experiencing Ornette Coleman. It's a pretty easy read, not a lot of new information, but it's interesting to read another take on Ornette. I'd be interested in reading Stephen Rush's Free Jazz, Harmolodics and Ornette Coleman. And as it turns out, it's at the public library too, so that will likely be next on the list.