Posts Tagged ‘Charles Mingus’

It seemed fitting that on the week that David Bowie left us to become a star in the night sky, the 2016 Jazzgroove Festival should open with the spacey starman-scapes of Alon Islar’s ensemble, The Sticks.

Kicking off Friday night’s Foundry 616 triple bill, The Sticks – drummer Islar with keyboardist Daniel Pliner and bassist Josh Ahearn – followed Alon’s mission statement, “We’re going to improvise for 45 minutes…” with a ton of imagination and a galaxy of verve. Built around Islar’s curious but astonishing invention, the AirSticks (in its simplest form: two hand controllers linked to laptop samples) the group made music – as all good jazz should be – literally out of the air.

Special guest, guitarist and polymath Ben Hauptmann sat right inside the Sticks’ orbit, blending with their space-scapes, moving with their funk, clicking and clacking with the more motorik beatz, talking their talk and walking their walk. Beautiful stuff; the 45 minutes passed in a wink, leaving us (me) wanting more.

This year’s Festival program was put together smartly by Jazzgroove to get all the flavours of jazz rubbing up against each other and to pleasantly jolt by contrast.

And so, the electro-funk of The Sticks was followed by The Cooking Club – tenor player Michael Gordon’s tough acoustic jazz quartet. The contrast could not have been more thrilling – and yet something was missing. The last time I saw The Cooking Club was after they launched their pretty fantastic CD High Energy Jazz from the Sydney Underground. The format was the piano-less quartet of Gordon on tenor, Finn Ryan on drums and Tom Wade on bass, with Ken Allars’ trumpet putting the Cherry on Gordon’s compositions.

Tonight the trumpet of Allars was replaced by Andrew Bruce on piano and its chords, sharp as they were, led to the music losing part of it’s Ornettey orneryness, it’s skinny rawness – at least to my ear. They still grabbed me though – the opener (also the CD’s opener) ‘Big Job’ bristled with energy – which is what this band does so well.

Closer ’Comedown’ had Gospel handclaps and Gordon summoning the ghosts of Albert Ayler’s ‘Ghosts’ in his throaty sermon.

JG3 - lekker, pic- Ellen Kirkwood

Lekker, pic- Ellen Kirkwood

Closing the night – and contrasting equally vividly with what had come before – was the much-anticipated performance of Lekker, Guitarist/composer Ben Hauptmann’s jazz-rock-reggae-bluegrass-funk-jazz septet. Built over the pulse and groove of James Hauptmann and Evan Mannell’s drums and percussion and James Haselwood’s bass, the group had Hauptmann shared guitar duties with Arne Hanna. Harry Sutherland and Dan Junor on piano and alto completed this astounding ensemble.

Hauptmann’s musical vision has always confounded any expectations (what is it about guitarist/composers?); tonight it put a grin on my face that he opened with a fleet bluegrass breakdown. Moving through compositions from both his Benjamin Hauptmann and Lekker albums, the band ate up all grooves – reggae, funk, West African 6/8, rock. Hauptmann’s solos, all held fire and cool chromatic sparks, contrasted beautifully with Arne Hanna’s more greasy, blues-accented touch. Hanna’s solos throughout were each a mini-masterclass on shaping and pacing a solo (young hotheads take note!).

A highlight for me was hearing the tunes such as ‘Shuffle Over’ – which gets a heavy electro treatment on the Lekker album – played by this ensemble: not better, just different flavoured, seasoned with human breath and sweat. (Also grin-making to hear Hauptmann’s ‘Third Stone From the Sun’ and ‘Eat That Question’ quotes in the coda fades. All guitarists are rockers at heart.)

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Sunday, Foundry 616 again and the sunny Ollie McGill trio. James Hauptmann (drums) and Jon Zwartz (bass) making McGill’s Tunes – vocal and instrumental – really spark and catch. After a rockin’ opener they were into the intriguing ‘Fishy’, alternating between a Latin groove and heavy funk, the trio at ease with the two different tempos and grooves.

JG5 - jon zwartz, pic- Hardaker

Jon Zwartz, pic- Hardaker

Vocal piece ‘Constancy’ was a good-hearted Dr John funk groove. McGill’s vocal, while not the most arresting, proved to me (again) that composers often do their own tunes the best justice, on an emotive level. Closer ‘Let The Wind Blow’ reminded us, yes, this was Sunday: spreading sweet Gospel tones and a hushed hallelujah over Foundry 616.

I had really looked forward to seeing bassist/composer David Groves and his ensemble – a new voice is always a reason to be cheerful. Groves himself thanked Jazzgroove for giving young composers such as himself a platform and an audience for his compositions. And his compositions were worth it – unique, nicely conceived, all intriguing and testing vehicles for blowing.

And yet his set was, to me, in part let down by a lack of cohesion in the group. Groves and Sydney’s tallest drummer, Cameron Reid often got the groove flying, and pianist Steve Barry did his usual elegant and harmonically shrewd thing. But the horns of tenor Scott Kelly and Simon Ferenci on trumpet rarely gelled and a general lack of forward motion seemed to hamper the band.

The classic hard bop quintet format – rhythm plus two horn front line – can be the most thrilling in all of jazz, but tonight Groves’ ensemble never seemed to give themselves the chance to blaze and thunder. I hope – no, I know – next time they will knock my socks off.

The twin crown of the 2016 Festival was the David Ades tribute performance by Zac Hurren and Julien Wilson. As part of a national tour to perform and celebrate the music of Melbourne’s brilliant and influential alto player and composer, David Ades, the two tenor colossi took the stage with Cameron Undy (bass) and Simon Barker (Drums). After a few words from Hurren, welcoming us to the festival and their performance, they proceeded to incinerate our minds with the sort of white heat that only jazz can cook up.

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Zac Hurren and Julien Wilson, pic- Hardaker

In the car on the way home later, the phrase ‘music made in the moment; music made for the moment’ swam into my mind. This was a performance that stopped time or rather, pulled and twisted and melted time into new and phantastic shapes. The two tenors faced each other across the stage and blew each others minds whilst blowing ours. No juvenile ‘cutting’ contest, this was as Trane and Pharoah spoke: heading up and out for joy.

Opening with Ades’ ‘La Ripaille’ the joy flared up like lust: Barker and Undy began pouring on the energy which never let up the entire set. The rest of the set was drawn from Ades’ lovely posthumous release A Day in A Life.

Hurren’s tone was rounder and more full-bellied, with fat dollops of the blues in his lower register and a woman’s loved cry at the top. Wilson’s voice was bright and sweet and riven through with lightning and other storms. Both players swooned as the other played, digging each other, meshed in mind and soul-spirit.

It was not all fire, brimstone and lava: Hurren and Undy’s measured and relaxed take on Ades’ ‘Arco and Alto’ had a suspended loveliness, reminiscent of Charles Mingus’ ‘Eclipse’ – a breeze from another planet. The set closer, ‘Removab’ built and built until we were all spent. Spent and blasted into joy.

Zac Hurren walked around the venue afterwards, personally thanking everyone for coming. As I shook his hand, I told him he had to be the happiest man in Australia. “Yeah! I am happy!” he beamed.

After that set – indeed, after what may be the last ever Jazzgroove festival – we were all pretty happy. As happy as Zac Hurren. And that’s happy.

 

Published February 2015 on australianjazz.net

 

And into my life just at the right time comes Sydney’s On The Stoop.

Saxophonist/accordianist/vocalist Serge Stanley‘s 6-piece (sometimes seven, sometimes nine-piece) superband is my new favourite Zappa-flavoured, Spaghetti Western, gypsy-eyed, banjo powered, 1920’s/2040’s, Newtown,  Balkan wedding band. They are wild and silly, drunk and serious. They leave roomfuls of people with huge grins across their faces – people who really couldn’t give a shit about the jazz luminaries who people On The Stoop, people who should (and do) give a shit about Serge’s choicely barbed lyrics – sticking it to the bankers and wankers and wowsers and posers (while making your whole legs tap and jig).

On The Stoop 2

From Eastern European skirls to corduroy banjo songs, from truck-sized Big Leg Emma (Google her!) funky rockers to Da Blooz par excellence, I think I really do love it all. Their self-titled debut album is all this and more. Go buy it.

I asked Serge Stanley a few questions about the where, why and how of On The Stoop. And this is what he said.

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1. Where does On The Stoop come from; how did the band start?
A stoop is an American word for the stairs in front of a tenement building. I used to live in New York City from 2003 – 2007. Living the dream in the big apple made me write a lot of very dark songs, some of them while standing out front on the stoop. When I came home, Dirk our guitarist and a musician I have been playing music with for many years, suggested we call the band On The Stoop. The initial material we played was quite dark and brooding, reflecting my time in NYC. Gradually however the sound of the band however has gone through a kind of phoenix-like cathartic revolution. Our music has evolved to become uncompromising and ultimately optimistic. I’d like to make music that flies in the face of the madness and adversity that life can throw at us.
2. You have some heavy-hitters on board from the world of jazz and experimental music. How did you pick your players?
It’s true we are very fortunate to have musicians in the band who are as accomplished as they are. I’ve admired the playing of everybody in On The Stoop by seeing them play in other bands. The rhythm section is composed of the most versatile musicians I’ve played with. Many of my tunes have these massive atonal horn lines so it was fun getting people to play who wanted to play kind of semi-unusual stuff. As a saxophone player myself I’m influenced by jazz, even though I wouldn’t consider myself a jazz musician. So most of the people in the band inevitably have jazz and experimental music backgrounds. I’ve made squeaky noises previously in other experimental music bands so it wasn’t hard to incorporate that into On The Stoop as well.
On the Stoop33. I hear Balkan music, country, Zappa, 20’s jazz and raw blues in there. Where does your music come from?
I always wanted to be in a punk rock band. When I was a teenager I went to private school in the inner city. I remember cruising down Yurong St Darlinghurst in my school blazer in the 80’s and seeing all the dodgy looking rocker people. Skinny black jeans, lank black hair, lanky pale arms and legs. I wanted to grow up to be just like them. The obstacle was I was 13, living in the Eastern suburbs, was healthy and played clarinet. Since then I’ve always been perennially uncool. But I love punk rock. A lot of the music I like has a nihilistic, I don’t care energy in it. For that reason I’m influenced by musicians like Mark Simmonds, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy. Bands like The Buzzcocks, Wire, The Fall, The Beasts of Bourbon, Tom Waits, Howling Wolf, John Hurt, Captain Beefheart, Taraf de Haidouks and many more from all sorts of genres.

4. You seem to wrap your satirical and fight-the-power lyrics in rollicking good time music – is it more important to get the message across or to get people boogying?
These days I like to have a rollicking good time when I’m playing gigs so that’s the kind of music I’ve been doing lately. I’m not interested in whether people agree with my views, my ideas aren’t that unusual and we live in a free country. As long as I play well and have a good time and the audience likes it then that’s what I call a satisfying gig. Social justice is in this country is definitely on my mind as well. I guess it’s made it’s way into the tunes. I’ve always had a healthy distrust of preachers, and I think wiser people tend not to hang on to their opinions too tightly. However if you’ve got something to say and manage to say it respectfully and keep people listening and having a good time then you’ve probably done a good show.

5. What is next for On The Stoop?
I’d like to do some more touring. Our last few trips have gone really well. Lots of fun, the band had a good time and was well received. I’m writing a bunch of new tunes, got a lot of material for a new album. The new music is going to be pretty angular I think. Hopefully a little more dangerous. A lot rockier. The band is in a good creative position at the moment to stretch the paradigm to try some interesting things. Lately I’ve been listening to a band called James Chance and The Contortions and a Japanese 80’s group called The Plastics. I’m hoping my next recording will be inspired by a bit of that stuff.

6. What are you thoughts on music today: jazz in particular and the wider range of music in general?
I love the state of the music industry at the moment. In Sydney there are some wonderful musicians doing some very cool things. We’re lucky in this town to have such a great pool of talent. There is the tendency for us to think that there are better or more inspiring musicians overseas however that’s not necessarily true. I’ve certainly been massively inspired by the musicians in the local scene here. I’ve been getting into listening to random music on Spotify and have found some fantastic music I’ve never heard before. They say it’s hard to make a living as a musician, but it’s always been hard. So what’s changed? And that has never stopped me writing or playing.

Published May 2015 on theorangepress.net
 

From time to time the modern music lover can be afflicted with ennui. As an outgrowth of the general modern malaise, our appetites – dulled by experiencing countless hours of music – can become jaded. Jaded to the point of boredom, even when faced with the best there is.

Artists often leap to the forefront of the Pop and Art consciousness simply by being willfully weird and opaquely obtuse. But that is a dead end street, in the main, for as soon as the Emperor’s new clothes fall away, we see he is naked, ordinary and empty, and always will be.

Jazz is a music that prides itself on innovation and forward thinking but, especially in this age where the Con turns out astounding young virtuosi by the sheaf, it can often all sound the same. On the other hand, dressing up and self-consciously setting out to shock – look at 60s jazz – ain’t the way to go.

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Tenor magus Sean Coffin debuted his new sextet at Sydney’s Sound Lounge for SIMA recently. And he reminded me that there is still room for truly innovative jazz that swings like Charles Mingus’ mutha and resonates with echoes of the past – while still pointing to the future.

Sandy Evans has said of Sean’s main trip over the past 20 years, The Coffin Brothers“There is great love for the jazz tradition in their music, a joy in the energy, spirit and language of jazz. They build on these powerful roots to create imaginative sonic journeys that are completely their own…” , words which also apply perfectly to the Coffin Sextet.

The Sound Lounge gig presented new and old tunes – opener ‘That Night’ was a reworking of a 20 year old piece – that the Sextet gave their all to. The frontline of Coffin, Nic Garbett on trumpet and alto man Dan Waples sang Coffin’s arrangements with real joy in the telling.

It is a while since I have heard such inventive arrangements for a three-horn frontline – smaller Jazz Messengers-size sections seem to play most lines in parallel or simple harmony, ignoring the possibilities that arrangers use when writing for big band horns. Coffin’s arrangemental trick-bag had the horns playing off each other in myriad combinations to astonishing effect, covering a wide range of emotive colour from rolling chorale to bristling car-horn dissonance.

The arrangements also smartly wove in the rhythm section of Gavin Ahearn, Brett Hirst and James Waples. Ahearn, moving between Rhodes and acoustic piano impressed on me yet again his almost big-C Classical logic. Hirst and Waples fortunately did what they always do – invent, underpin, drive, colour and have wicked fun with rhythm. During the 7/4 funk of ‘The Strength of Your Convictions’ I thought for a minute that Waples was going to bash his kit clear across the stage (and that was in his socks, sans shoes!). Once again, joy in the telling.

Coffin stood beaming like a proud papa – obviously thrilled with the lineup and the stars and colours they wrung from his charts. ‘Alright, Today We’re Gonna’ was written, Coffin explained, just as Mingus and Ellington had written for their own ensembles, as a piece for the band to have fun with. And they did, the logical Ahearn now grinding illogical Don Pullen-style clusters out of the polite Sound Lounge piano and the Waples brothers warming up the winter’s night with a heated horn-drums duet.

Sean Coffin’s tenor tone and approach fits the music perfectly. In his sound there are distinct echoes and cries from jazz history – the blues is prominent if abstracted – yet the same imagination that elevates his arrangements carries through to surprise us in his solos. Funky as fuck in ‘Booga Dunny’ (get it? ‘I’m  a funny cat’, says SC), a soul-jazz boogaloo, he also plays a ballad such as ‘Quiet Thoughts’ with great depth – the coda cadenza was a composition in itself. His horn can bite but it can also kiss.

Closing piece, ‘New England Sketches’, flew through tempo and mood changes as if we were motoring through a landscape. The Sextet flexed their bebop muscles on the fast section, creating horizontally and vertically at a high level. I was reminded – not for the first time that night – that this Sextet was a cap-B Band, a rare mix of particular players, a six-headed entity that breathed and jumped and laughed together.

Sean Coffin promises recordings of this band within the next six months or so. I for one keenly look forward to them – but recordings are recordings. True Jazz is of the moment and the Coffin Sextet gave us some shining moments that night. Do not miss them when they play again.

 

Published July 2103 on australianjazz.net 

 

 

 

Creativity transcends material. The truly creative artist can work with material that appears to have reached its final expression, reworking and reshaping the existing into new forms, drawing out detail and design that might be hidden from the rest of us. Look at the junk-art collages of Robert Rauschenberg or the Eastern European folk-song themes in Bartók or Stravinsky – or, closer to our line here, the recasting of the blues in the hands of Duke Ellington.

Sydney tenor giant James Ryan – as well as being a startling instrumentalist – is a truly gifted and, in a world where the word has been buffed clean of all its edge, a truly creative composer and arranger. He recently arranged a selection of Ray Charles tunes for his powerhouse big band, The Sonic Mayhem Orchestra, a collection of Sydney’s best and brightest and that rare bird: a large ensemble bristling with astonishing soloists that play as an ensemble, as one.

For their September 20 show at Blue Beat – a chic and funky nite spot on possibly Sydney’s most unfunky strip, Double Bay’s Cross St – The Sonic Mayhem Orchestra took on George Gershwin’s 1935 “American folk opera” ‘Porgy and Bess’.

Or rather, James Ryan’s 2012 take on Gil Evans’ 1958 take on George Gershwin’s 1935 ‘Porgy and Bess’. Creativity transcends material.

In 1958, Gil Evans and Miles Davis – after the critical and artistic success of the previous year’s ‘Miles Ahead’ – re-imagined ‘Porgy and Bess’ in a challenging and truly modern way. Evans’ idea of harmony and timbre took much from 20th century European classical music and stretched jazz writing out of shape, paving the way for the almost entirely impressionistic ‘Sketches of Spain’ two years later.

I was very excited to see how James Ryan, as uncompromising an arranger as Gil Evans himself, would cast Evans’ arrangements and harmonies.

The opening set began with a soulful chart from the pen of trombonist Dave Panichi and the power and cohesion of the band was evident – they ‘felt’ the colours and textures of that chart and those that followed almost preternaturally. As I say, a rare bird. The street-tough reading of Charles Mingus’s thrilling ‘Boogie Stop Shuffle’ – with a bluesy solo-bass intro from Karl Dunnicliff and a rousing series of chase-choruses from alto players Kim Lawson and Aaron Michael – and the Eastern flavoured arrangement of ‘You Go To My Head’ – with bass clarinet musings from the almost-mystic Paul Cutlan – took my breath away.

The ‘Porgy and Bess’ set began with ‘Summertime’ – a smart choice as it is the most emblematic tune from the opera, but smart also because the arrangement showed how far Ryan had taken the music from its source. All that was left it seemed was Gil Evans’ rhythmic (and rhythmically displaced) horn section vamps behind the solos and a suggestion of melody here and there. It laid out the mission statement for what was to come.

The set was hung on a series of monologues from singer Trish Delaney-Brown, bridging the pieces with snatches of lyrics, spoken rather than sung. Delaney-Brown’s voice was also written into much of the music as a wordless vocalese ‘instrument’ which worked beautiful, adding ‘air’ to some of the phrases and brass block chords.

There were snatches of the Evans arrangements throughout but Ryan had taken what he wanted and re-built the music for his Band. And he had mixed up the earth with the ether – sure, there were gorgeously voiced, impressionistic pieces such as the lovely ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ and the street-joyous ‘There’s a Boat Leaving’ (with a burnished brass-choir intro; great writing!) – but, like Charles Mingus, he never shied away from a groove.

The Kim Lawson showcase, ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ swung with real soul and flow. Ryan’s own tenor feature, ‘A Red Headed Woman’ was as raw and intense as I have heard. Delaney-Brown’s fragment of lyric which introduced the piece mentioned one of the opera’s characters answering a devout chorus with ‘vulgar’ speech – and, yes, Ryan answered the Band’s ‘devout’ chorus with many Pharoah Sanders ‘vulgarisms’ but also sheets and sheets of Coltrane joy.

The set wound up with ‘Gone’, featuring drummer Nic Cecire who worked his way through the twisted mirror-maze of accents and grace-beats. (Even the drummer on the 1958 recording stumbles and trips on a few of these; it’s true – have a listen). His ease and passion was typical of the whole thing – Ryan and the band had really delivered a brilliant take on an already iconic work in Jazz. That James Ryan had not just charted the Gil Evans/Miles Davis arrangements note for note reinforced to me what Jazz should be about –moving ever forward, on the wings of the past.

 

Published September 2102 on jazz-planet.com