Tuesday, July 23, 2013

There's no there there


A few years back, Mike Nock performed a solo concert at the Illot Theatre in Wellington. The day of the concert he presented a masterclass. The turnout wasn't huge - mostly a bunch of music students alongside my friend Char Ford and I (front-row-center… jazz nerds!). Mike played a standard and a free improvisation - for the most part he talked about playing, his conception and philosophy. There aren't many details I can remember but one gem remains. When speaking about the journey of music and seeking a destination, a level to attain etc. Mike pointed out that….
"When you get there, you realize there's no there, there."

At the end of the masterclass Norman Meehan asked me if I was coming to the concert that night. I replied that I would love to but I couldn't afford it (the concert wasn't that expensive I was broke at the time). Norman proposed that if I wanted to sell CDs during the set break and after the gig then there would be a ticket for me. I jumped at the chance (Thanks Norm!). The CDs sold well. Of the half a dozen or so discs for sale only one didn't sell out…. the one without Nock playing on it (Michael Houston playing Nock compositions). It was great chatting with Mike after the gig, talking about watching him on TV when I was getting into jazz and what an inspiration he was. 

As a young musician Mike Nock was the only New Zealand jazz musician that I was really aware of. I had seen him on TV (possibly on the news) but never heard his music until later in my teens - towards the end of high school. In fact, I believe the first time I heard his music (outside of that brief TV appearance) was in person thanks to the generosity of a former saxophone teacher (thanks Brian!).

Brian had an extra ticket for a Mike Nock concert in Wellington - if I wanted to go it was mine. The concert launched the 1998 Wellington Jazz Festival. The Wellington Jazz Collective had commissioned Nock to compose a piece for large ensemble. My memories are somewhat hazy when it comes to specifics but the concert most definitely made an impact. Until then the live jazz that I had exposed to was pretty much Big Bands, Dixieland/Swing groups, and the odd group or two playing standards - this was some thing else. Nock presented his composition "Shifting Goalposts" with an ensemble of many of Wellington's (and NZ's) top musicians. I think the lineup was Nock (p) Scott Towers & Jeff Henderson (sax) Nick van Dijk (trb) Chris O'Connor & Roger Sellers (d) John Bell (vibes) Paul Dyne (and someone else… Patrick Bleaky or Tom Callwood) (b).... it was a nine or ten piece group. Please let me know if my memory has failed me. Over the following three years many of them would be my teachers at music school.

If there is a recording of this concert floating around I would love to hear it.

Wellington Public Library has treated me well over the years. As a teenager I would browse the racks finding things to listen to - artists I had read about or just random albums. Around the time of "Shifting Goalposts" one such visit lead me to Ondas (ECM 1982 - with Eddie Gomez (d) Jon Christensen (d)). At the time I was listening to lots of Bird and getting into classics like Sonny Rollins (Saxophone Colossus) Paul Desmond (Time Out) Ornette Coleman (Shape of Jazz) Dexter Gordon (Our Man in Paris) - Ondas was quite a change for me. 
The mood is quite reflective throughout the album (things pick up tempo-wise on "Doors"). The drums sneak in and out while the bass accompaniment is sparse. Nock's piano is light with crystal clear purpose. I'm surprised this is the only work Nock did for ECM.
Check out Nock's album In Out and Around for an earlier quartet version of "Forgotten Love."

During the 1990's Nock worked as a producer for Naxos and the label priced its releases much lower than was common in New Zealand - that, and they had distribution in NZ, meant these are the albums I have heard the most.

Ozboppin' (Naxos 1998) got many spins when Char and I were working at Piano City. Fine playing from what I believe was Nock's working group of the time - Tim Hopkins (ts) Phil Slater (trpt/flugel) Cameron Undy (b) David Goodman (d) It had been a while since I last listened to the entire album - Nock's solo on the title track always stood out to me.

Not We But One (Naxos 1997) Tony Reedus (d) Anthony Cox (b). Nice interplay from the trio on seven compositions from Nock, three free improvisations and one standard ('Cry Me A River' in 3/4). An album with nice amounts of variety yet plenty of continuity. I would like to hear some of his more recent trios - I haven't got to 'Changing Seasons" & "Accumulation of Subtleties" just yet.

The Waiting Game (Naxos 1999) A set of duos with Marty Ehrlich. Once again there's plenty of variety with the material - Five Nock originals, free improvisations, folk tunes, and one piece each from Brubeck & James P. Johnson. This disc was introduction to Ehrlich's playing who divides time been clarinet (soprano & bass) and saxophone (alto & soprano). It's a nice pairing, with two distinctive sounds with plenty of common ground. For more of Ehrlich & Nock together check out the two New York Jazz Collective albums (also on Naxos). 

Duologue (Birdland 2007) duo with David Liebman (soprano sax). I picked this album up a couple of years before getting into soprano. The recording captures the warmth of this duo in concert at the 2004 Wangaratta Jazz Festival. Two old friends sharing the bandstand after many years apart seems to bring out the best of both artists. The set list includes originals by Nock & Liebman plus a couple of standards. Liebman has some long standing relationships with pianists - Richie Beirach, Phil Markowitz & Marc Copland. Duologue makes me want to hear some follow up work between these two. Back in the 80's they did record as part of a quartet (The Opal Heart) but I am yet to hear that disc (I see it's on Spotify). This disc backs up my feeling that the soprano saxophone is Liebman's voice. Mike's accompaniment & solo work throughout is top notch. 

While I'm on the subject of duos I don't want to leave out Open Door (Ode 1987) with drummer Frank Gibson Jr. The groove of "Harriet St" & "Phaedra's Lullaby", the harmonies of "Danny Boy", the up-tempo "Choices" and the journey of "Great Wall." This one has had plenty of plays over the years too.
Nock's most recent release - Kindred - another piano/drum duet, this time with Laurenz Pike. I look forward to hearing it.

For those of you after more info on "the white boy from Ngaruawahia" be sure to check out Serious Fun: The Life & Music of Mike Nock by Norman Meehan(Victoria University Press 2010) 

It's full of wonderful tales from his early years in New Zealand and relocating to the USA (via Australia) - touring with Yusef Lateef and Stanley Turrentine, the NYC lower east side scene during the 60's, The Fourth Way etc - through to his mentoring of younger players in Australia. 
Here's a couple excerpts from the book: First up - Nock on fellow pianist Paul Bley. 

"It didn't matter what the changes were - sometimes he might refer to them, but a lot of the time he wouldn't at all - and it didn't matter. It's the strength of the line that carries it. Playing with total certainty about you are doing is what makes the difference." 

And, from the final couple of pages:
"Jazz is serious - it's serious fun, but for me it is serious music - otherwise what's the point in doing it? Mediocrity doesn't rule my life."

An added bonus included with the book is the DVD - Mike Nock: A Film. I have blurry memories of watching Nock on T.V before I started playing sax so I'm guessing it was documentary (it seemed very familiar when I watched after reading the book).

I am yet to delve into his music from a playing side. Perhaps that awaits me in the future.

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