Saturday, September 09, 2017

NZ Jazz: Mike Nock - Vicissitudes

Today kicks off a series of posts that will focus on jazz by New Zealand artists. There were a few motivating factors behind the series. I’ve enjoyed putting together the NZ Music Month posts over the last couple of years and wanted to build on them; reading (and re-reading) Jazz Aotearoa and Norman Meehan’s New Zealand Jazz Life; picking up a handful of albums when I was back home earlier in the year; and probably a touch of homesickness too. But perhaps the main driver was simply getting more familiar with the music and artists from back home.

It’s amazing how little emphasis was placed on jazz from NZ during my years at music school. It was rare to talk about NZ artists and records, and I only recall playing one composition by a Kiwi in three years of combo classes (there were some big band charts but no real emphasis there either).

Although I attended a lot of live music, I didn't buy many NZ albums …. and oddly, some that I did went missing along the way - C.L. Bob, Syzygy, Mark de Clive Lowe among others that I’m slowly re-acquiring. 15 years ago there was little interaction/collaboration between the scenes in various cities and I wasn’t very aware of what the NZ scene was beyond Wellington. It was rare to have musicians from Auckland playing in Wellington (and even rarer to hear musicians come up from the South Island). Thankfully, due to the work of the Creative Jazz Club in Auckland, and now the newly formed Wellington Jazz Cooperative, and OrangeStudios in Christchurch, it seems like things are changing.

I thought it was appropriate to start with something recent by the first jazz musician from New Zealand I was aware of - Mike Nock.

Mike Nock: Vicissitudes (Rattle Records)

New Zealand Jazz
I like the variety that comes with Mike Nock. He keeps the listener on their toes (ears?), as you never know what the next album will bring. This was very much the case with Vicissitudes - the 2016 album that pairs the Mike Nock trio [Nock (p/e.piano/synth) Brett Hirst (b) James Waples (d)] with the NZTrio [Justine Cormack (violin) Ashley Brown (cello) Sarah Watkins (piano)].

Four fairly brief collective improvisations open the album and I found myself starting the album over a number of times just to focus on those pieces. They have an improvised chamber music quality and are my favourites of the album (even if sometimes they seem a little unfinished). It gives the album a curious opening, and by default, they serve as a multi-part introduction to the six-part “Vicissitudes.”

I had to look up the definition of the title - a change in circumstances or alternation between opposite or contrasting things. Given that the work has origins in providing some solace to post-earthquake Christchurch, and it features the paring of jazz trio and classical trio, and improvised and composed music, it’s an appropriate choice.

Possibly due to the focus on composition and/or the addition of the string trio, I find the suite lacks some of the rhythmic vigour that I like in Mike’s music. My initial thought was that a “carefulness” dominated the playing, but now I’m more inclined to get a warmth and soft feeling coming through the piece. Although, there are still times when I catch myself waiting for things to take off and I have to remind myself it’s just not that type of work. The uplifting quality never smacks you in the face, but simmers just below the surface and I fell that makes things more interesting.

The use electric piano has yet to win me over. However, I find that the synth works pretty well, so I think it’s the tone of the electric piano rather than an aversion to the instrument itself….there’s something muted and soft that seems to disagree with me.

The album ends on a solo rendition of “El Testamen De Amelia” (which Nock recorded back in 1999 on The Waiting Game.. a fine duo record with Marty Ehrlich). And even though this track was recorded at an earlier session, it fits seamlessly into the flow of things and nicely rounds out the album. Vicissitudes, may not have totally hit the spot for me, but it has provided me with some fresh listening this past month, and that's always a positive.

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