Posts Tagged ‘John Coltrane’

The music of Thelonious Sphere Monk is a world of its own. So unique in jazz is Monk’s conception – both in composition and in improvisation  – that it has pretty much carved out a sub-genre of its own.

Because of its unique language, it has proven down the years a notoriously difficult book to play. Some of the greats have struggled with its quirks and almost Zen-like mind-games: the staggered rhythms, the displaced phrases, the lines that seemingly go nowhere, only to bob up from rabbit-hole a few bars later. John Coltrane and Monk’s long-time foil, Charlie Rouse come to mind, but not too many others.

To improvise over Monk’s compositions – even a deceptively traditional blues such as ‘Blue Monk’ – demands an understanding of his highly personal logic. To move within that successfully, while not losing your own voice, is the grail.

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Sydney altoist, Michael Griffin has put together a tribute to Monk’s music based around an octet Monk toured in 1968. Griffin’s octet (a very Monk word I think; as ‘quintet’ is a very Miles word) is made up of some of our best and brightest. I was fortunate to catch them at Sydney’s swish Foundry 616.

After the opener, the sweetly melancholic ‘Ruby, My Dear’ played by the quartet of Griffin, Aaron Blakey on piano and the rhythm section of Tim Geldens (drums) and Tom Botting (bass), Griffin brought out the horns. With ‘Epistrophy’ I knew Griffin has done his homework. He explained, mid-set, that he had voiced the horns based on transcriptions of Monk’s piano voicings. So all the harmonic quirks were there – the clashed seconds and flat-seconds, the clusters, the more open intervals such as sixths and ninths (Monk seemed to favour either very close or very open harmony) – and the effect was, like Monk himself, akin to nothing else in jazz.

The band swung through a nice mix of faves and obscurities – the gonzoid mis-steps of ‘Evidence’, the fractured bop of ‘We See’, a wonderfully driving ‘Off Minor’, the horns – Griffin plus Michael Gordon and Louis Gordon (2 tenors), with Paul Weber on trombone and Tom Avenicos on trumpet – sounding huge on ‘Oska T’ and almost Stravinsky-like on closer ‘Crepuscule with Nellie’.

The soloists all dug into the material with zest. Griffin’s smart selection of players afforded a range of approaches – Michael Gordon’s reflective tone and ideas, Louis (no relation) Gordon’s more biting attack, the sharp tone of Avenicos (a beautiful solo in ‘I Mean You’ where the piano laid out and the trumpet notes played contrapuntal tag with the rhythm section), Paul Weber’s blues-inflected voice-like lines.

Griffin’s Parker-classic alto flurries at times could seem at odds with the more open Monk ideas – serving as an illustration as to the immense differences between these two ‘architects’ of Bebop, Monk and Charlie Parker (as different as Frank Lloyd Wright and Gaudi, though I couldn’t say who was which). That said, his more lyrical side was the highpoint of ‘Blue Monk’, beautiful long blues lines and lovely phrase endings. But what the hell – he is one of our most exciting players whatever he does.

Someone who seemed to be having too much fun was pianist Aaron Blakey. And what jazz pianist wouldn’t with the Monk book? Resplendent in a wide Sonny Rollins hat, Blakely placed perfect ‘Monk bombs’ under the soloists and laid out for great gaps, shoring up the tension as Monk used to (though, I noted, without Monk’s sweet, abandoned dance movements around the piano). Blakey’s solos had an equal measure of his own sparkling ideas and some Zen-lunatic Monk humour. His solo-piano take on ‘Pannonica’ which opened the second set was another high-point in a night of highs.

If only to experience the wonderful, eternally-modern music of T S Monk you need to see this band. The fact that Michael Griffin has rendered such perfect arrangements, kept close and respectful to the spirit of Monk, and engaged such a killer ensemble makes it  an essential to any fan of Jazz.

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I was surprised when I put on saxophonist/compopser Andy Sugg’s new album. The last Sugg album I heard was when I (glowingly) reviewed the excellent Berlin Session album in early 2013.

That album was free and wild and had the colossal shadow of John Coltrane falling across the wonderful music made with Sugg’s daughter, Kate Kelsey-Sugg and players Jan Leipnitz and Sean Pentland.

The new one, Wednesdays at M’s, could not be more different. The focus is far more on composition, arrangement and timbral texture and has a decidedly fusion edge, complete with electric flavours.

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But then I was surprised that I was surprised – after all, Sugg is a searching, seeking, probing player. Why would he sound now as he did four years ago?

The Group is entirely different, too, apart from Kelsey-Sugg on piano (and vapour-like vocals on closer ‘Rings Around The Moon’). Made up of leading players such as drummer Nate Wood, Ben Eunson on guitar and Australian-abroad Sean Wayland, this is no ordinary Group.

And they need to be extraordinary to navigate Sugg’s remarkable compositions and bring them to vivid life – each tune is completely owned by the ensemble; the ensemble playing and solos leap from the speakers with a rush of blood and fire.sugg-wednes-2

The electric edge doesn’t become apparent until Ben Eunson’s guitar solo on opener ‘Djuna at One’. The groove is buoyant, rolling along on the tough acoustic bass of Matt Clohesy until Eunson’s electric guitar chops into it, right down to the bone. Eunson’s playing across Wednesdays at M’s is a highlight: biting here, fluid there, he plays with a wide range of textures that should be an object lesson to more than a few contemporary jazz guitarists. His tone is metallic but fleshed out with more than enough blues to make it sing beautifully.

The fusion thing is taken up a notch over the three part Suite, ‘Hemispheric’: Part 1 is swathed in Christian Almiron’s Zawinulesque synth washes. Almiron returns for Part 3, soloing and swooping across the brightly choppy rhythm.

A highlight of the album is ‘Mandela’. Built on a criss-crossing set of riffs, this groove pushes Sugg and Eunson to some spiraling highs. Sugg’s playing throughout is revelatory yet always with deep soul and humanity in his delivery. On the Berlin Session album he played only soprano; here he plays only tenor and it fits the tougher ensemble dynamic perfectly (it is particularly thrilling when in unison with Eunson’s Stratocaster).

Prior to recording, these eight pieces were worked up in a weekly workshop environment on NYC’s Lower East Side in a vacant dance studio belonging to ‘Mike’, hence the album title. You can hear the freedom and care that Sugg was allowed to lavish on their forming: nothing is rushed and there was obviously room for tints of other non-jazz genres to colour the music. In essence, the music was allowed to grow and evolve in a hothouse.

At the foot of his liner notes, Andy Sugg simply says ‘Thank you, Mike.’ I, and anyone who listens to Wednesdays at M’s will surely second that emotion.

 

For more information visit: www.andysugg.com

 

In his between sets patter, Club MC Jeremy Sole thanks the Blue Whale audience for “not only showing up but being present“, reminding them (and us) that the two are very very different things. The same can be said of drummer Myele Manzanza and his ensemble for this electrifying live recording at the fabled LA club – OnePointOne (Live At the Blue Whale).

The word ‘present’ applies here in all its forms – the performances are in the present (the now), Manzanza and the band present (bestow) us with their present (gift) of this music. And what amazing music it is – a feast of jazz-fusion flavoured beauty created before us in a time and space that seems endless.

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Manzanza’s debut album, 2103’s One, was a stunning introduction to the drummer’s great creativity, spirit of adventure and grasp of contemporary urban styles. The New Zealand born son of a Congolese drum master, Manzanza’s vision is one of virtuosic precision which never enslaves the groove – a very African approach: complex yet irresistable. But where One used an array of samples and had the slightly claustrophobic headroom of electronica, OnePointOne is open and organic, using Manzanza’s trio augmented by the Quartetto Fantastico string quartet and two vocalists, Charlie K and Nia Andrews.

The difference is apparent on the live versions of two pieces which originally appeared on One – ‘7 Bar Thing’ and ‘City of Atlantis’. The former heats up under a bristling Mark de Clive-Lowe piano solo (acoustic piano is to the fore all across OnePointOne), whereas the latter, arranged by the Quartetto Fantastico’s Miguel Atwood-Ferguson becomes a languid, sun-dappled underwater cinematic experience.Microsoft Word - Myele Manzanza OnePointOne PR.doc

Jazz is also everywhere here, the spirit and the joy of it. Album opener ‘A Love Eclectic’ channels the spirit of John Coltrane with the bass of Ben Shepherd riffing a mutated version of the ‘Love Supreme’ bass hook (Shepherd’s solo, bonus track ‘Ben MF Shepherd’ is dazzling). The samba of ‘Absent Fade’ has Manzanza and de Clive-Lowe spinning each other off the dial, at one point tying the 4/4 bar into 7/8 knots.

A high-point for me is Manzanza’s drum solo ‘Circumstances’. He tells a story and paints his canvas and takes us down the roads of his choosing – yes, I am mixing metaphors but Manzanza does all this and more. He is one of those rare players than can keep you totally engaged with only a collection of percussion instruments and a fair sprinkling of his own magic.

OnePointOne (Live At the Blue Whale) is sprinkled all over with that magic and has made me a fan all over again of Myele Manzanza, despite his debut and this current album being remarkably different from each other in approach. And yet they are held together in style by Manzanza’s skill, vision and sense of deep beauty. I deeply recommend it.

OnePointOne (Live At the Blue Whale) is released 11th November 2106 through www.firstwordrecords.com

Myele Manzanza’s website is http://myelemanzanza.com

Published November 2016 on http://theorangepress.net

Watching tenor colossus Dale Barlow tonight at Foundry 616 blowing alongside young altoist Michael Griffin, my mind went back to when I first saw Barlow play, way way back in the hazy day.

At an age not much older than Griffin is now, Barlow used to – in the words of my friend Greg L – “decapitate everyone in the room”. Of course, he continues to astound and his story, Jazz Messengers and all, is well know.

Griffin’s trajectory may not be as well documented yet, though for a younger player it is impressive. A semi-finalist at Washington DC’s 2103 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition, Griffin is rising rapidly and capable of more than a little decapitation of his own.

griffin cannon3To see the two men working together, obviously digging each other’s playing was a thrill that pointed to this being one of the jazz gigs of the year for me. Griffin was overjoyed to be locking horns, literally, with the great Dale; Barlow, for his part, equally seemed to enjoy having the younger player’s sparkling alto nipping at his heels, pushing him into some hair-raising tenor work.

The night was sold as a Tribute to Cannonball and Coltrane, yet – rather than trot out the obvious – Griffin smartly used the first set to recreate the fire and brimstone of Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Chicago, the 1959 album which featured John Coltrane, as well as the Miles Davis Quintet at the time (sans Miles).

The tunes are exceptional hard-bop blowing vehicles and Griffin and Barlow rode straight through them. The band, The Jon Harkins Trio – Harkins on piano, Noel Mason bass and Tim Geldens drums – were high on the ride as well. Harkins’ piano was sometimes muscle, sometimes sinew; the tough physicality of his playing matching the attack of the horns.

Opener ‘Limehouse Blues’ was a burner with Griffin leaping into his solo and turning the heat up early. Barlow answered with equal fahrenheit. Pins dropped. Mouths gaped.

Griffin, after a short spoken welcome – he is a personable and easily funny host ­– took us through the ballad ‘Stars Fell on Alabama’. Like Charlie Parker, Griffin is not only an eighth-note blazer, his ballad playing is lyrical and considered, his lines leaning into the beauty of the melody.

John Coltrane’s fractured and tricksy ‘Grand Central’ had Barlow blowing at his most electrifying. During his solo something clicked and his scything runs and leaps of melody lit us all up. Throughout the performance, the Harkins trio kept all of Coltrane’s little rhythmic shots in place under the solos without losing their collective minds.

The second set was given over to a selection of Adderley and Coltrane pieces – once again, not going for the obvious. All soloists navigated the cycling changes of Trane’s brilliant ‘Just Like Sonny’, Harkins in particular (to my ear) taking them out to their harmonic edges, just as Trane would have meant it to be.

‘Naima’, the only truly obvious choice of the night (how could you not?), was rendered un-obvious by its reading on the alto, rather than the tenor. Once again, Griffin took to the melody like a lover, teasing great beauty out of Naima’s dusky head.

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Half-jokingly apologising to the Trio for the speed of the tune they were about to play, Griffin lit into ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ in triple-time, summoning Parker’s fire and Cannon’s joy. His solo left more than a few of us decapitated, but in the sweetest way. Barlow’s solo reinforced his rep as one of our most thrilling and consistent tenors; his unmistakeable voice on the instrument, his ability to create at the highest level is something else.

The idea of the “perfect expression” of an artform – one where, like a shark or a Gibson Les Paul guitar, no further evolution is needed, or indeed, wanted – is a contentious one. Does the Blues need to go anywhere else?

Jazz, especially in its hard-bop, post-bop or, simply, acoustic form (I avoid the term ‘mainstream’ because it is meaningless) seems to have everything it needs.

Especially when one encounters players such as Griffin and Barlow and Harkins, the words ‘perfect expression’ seem to express its wild and sleek perfection just fine.

 

 
Published April 2105 on australianjazz.net 

 

 

 

Conceptual art divides people as fiercely and clearly as it divided the Old from the New early in the 20th Century. Art that can be an idea, or a mere instruction or a thought – often independent of a material resolution or form – is anathema to many.

And all too often, conceptual art is itself to blame. By creating impenetrable layers of obscure meaning or by expressing an ultra-personal iconography (as in the work of Joseph Beuys) it can lose people, who can see it as coldly intellectual, its poetry alien.

The work of Japanese-American artist Yoko Ono is different. Although highly conceptual and loaded with many layers of meaning, Ono’s art has always carried a very human message. Almost everything she creates can be immediately felt on some flesh-and-blood level, which can be a doorway to the deeper storeys of stories within. Ono’s work is outwardly simple, but it is as loaded as a bear-trap.

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War Is Over (If You Want It) Yoko Ono recently opened at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. It gives us a unique and wide-ranging look into Ono’s world (and through it, our own). The title comes from massive billboard posters that Ono and her husband, Beatle John Lennon placed across the world’s cities in Christmas 1969 as a message and gesture of peace.

Peace is a theme deeply associated with John and Yoko and many of Ono’s pieces express a yearning for peace, both on universal and personal levels. Her ‘Play It By Trust’ (1966) is a chess set where all the pieces are white as are their squares. As the players play, they lose track of which pieces are theirs and which are those of their opponent, and soon the idea of ‘sides’ is blurred – we realise, just as fraternising trench troops during World War I realised, we are really all the same. The simplicity, the whiteness, the life-affirmation of this piece are pure Ono – her emotional palette as well as her colour palette is white, water, clouds, dreams, love, peace. Blurred edges of personality that connect us all in a universality.

This universality of humanity is equally expressed in her 2006 piece ‘We’re All Water’, a row of identical bottles containing identical amounts of water, but all with a name attached – Groucho Marx, John Coltrane, James Joyce, John Lennon – different names, identical containers and contents. A simple idea but one which grows many thoughts, like branches, upon reflection.Yoko Ono, We're All Water 2008

But it is not all sweetness, love and light. Ono’s meditations on sexual politics – especially as they relate to women – can be disturbing in their power. Footage of her famous ‘Cut Piece’ from 1964 – where audience members are invited to cut away the clothes of a passive, kneeling Ono with sharp scissors – is shown on a wall here, adjacent to a more recent performance from 2003, where the piece is carried our on the artist, now 70 years old. Aside from the power of the obvious sexual and political connotations here, it is remarkable that the piece takes on even greater depth and raises new questions when ‘Cut Piece’ is now applied to the artist as an elderly woman.

‘Touch Me III’ from 2008 is a series of boxes, each containing a silicone replica of an erogenous part of a female body – lips, breasts, pubis. We are asked to wet our fingers in a bowl of water and touch the flesh-like silicone. The sense of violence here is inescapable, even though all is dark and still. When ‘Touch Me III’ was first shown in New York, the silicone was left with so many cuts and gouges by visitors that the gallery decided to remove it. Ono declined the idea, leaving the damaged ‘flesh’ in view of all.

Ono has created a specific artwork for Sydney – ‘Wish Tree for Sydney’ – six lemon-scented eucalypts on the Sculpture Terrace with materials to write and attach their dreams and wishes to the tree. Inspired by Shinto temple trees of Ono’s childhood in Japan, these Wish Trees (the first was made in1998) are a simple, heartfelt emblem of positive human aspiration.

And it is this desire for a better world, a better future, that runs through all of this work. Ono lived through the nuclear devastation of Japan during WWII; she has starved and known the dreadful suffering of the vanquished side. So this yearning for peace is not an abstract tissue of lip-service, as it is in too many artists, but her gift to us and her gift to the future.

 

Published November 2013 on megaphoneoz.com

Walking in late, two minutes into the first number of US tenor icon Ernie Watts’ gig at VJ’s, I was blasted by four cats utterly grooving high. No warm-up for these men – it was straight into the blistering bop of ‘To The Point’, a Watts original from 2008. The power and hurtling momentum of the band hit me so hard I remained standing until they had finished.

This was going to be good.

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The auditorium of Chatswood’s VJ’s jazz venue was packed and every head was bobbing, riveted. Watts is en route to the glamour of the Brisbane Jazz Festival, but he and his band played as if this small room gig was their last on earth. Even when Watts led his men through the calmer waters of a Christof Saenger (piano) original, the electricity didn’t die off, it just glowed cooler.

After some wry (and elliptically droll) banter from Watts, the band played through the title track of his latest album ‘Oasis’ – an arrangement with a definite John Coltrane minarets-and-dunes vibe to it. In fact, Coltrane’s deep blue-brown shadow cast its shape over much of Watt’s music, tone and phrasing (those delicious phrase endings…) not least in moments such as his sparring duet with drummer Heinrich Cobberling during ‘To The Point’ – its firepower bringing to mind some of the famous Coltrane-Elvin Jones horn-drums rave-ups.

Watts-111But this is hardly surprising knowing Ernie Watts’ deep sense of the history of his music, Jazz. In a recent interview with the ABC’s Gerry Kosta, Watts spoke of the presence of jazz history in the playing of the Free Jazz virtuosi, something not immediately obvious in the wiry tangled skeins of their music. Watts himself seems a living repository of many voices now gone – and he speaks of them most eloquently through his horn.

Which is not to say, of course, his own horn’s voice is in any way derivative or pastiche – his balance of skyscraping technique and real blue soul exemplifies what is the true twin-gift of Jazz, albeit one heard too rarely. The band gave us a light-speed reading of the Parker-Gillespie 1945 be-bop head-spinner ‘Shaw ‘Nuff’ that proved the point, no argument (and at times threatened to go off the dial).

After a short interval (really, VJ’s?: only a gold coin donation for a glass of wine? You don’t know jazz fans…) the band was back with Coltrane’s ‘Crescent’ and The Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’. The latter, as well as featuring a tasty 6/8 blowing middle section, showed the eclecticism that has taken Watts beyond the sometimes trad-Dad borders of Jazz into sessions with Marvin Gaye, The Rolling Stones and Frank Zappa (Watts plays ‘mystery horn’ on Zappa’s 1972 big band album The Grand Wazoo).Watts-Rudi Engel bass

This wider view of the music characterises the smart and eclectic arrangements that Watts puts before his quartet. Usually, a group this small plays only ‘head’ arrangements, groping and hoping for shape to evolve during performance. Watts’ group could – and did – certainly move freely through the ‘open’ sections of the tunes but there were also smartly considered ensemble sections – such as on the coolly swinging Keith Jarrett tune ‘No Lonely Nights’.

Encore was a lithe blues that featured a rolling bass solo from Rudi Engel before Watts returned to ‘converse’ individually with each player – bass, drums piano – to take the tune out. The conversation was bright, good-natured, sweet and hot – much like the conversation Ernie Watts had been having with the crowd at VJ’s all night. He really gave us the good word.

All pics: AlanS Photographics

Published June 2013 on megaphoneoz.com

I once heard John Coltrane’s playing described as the sound of a ‘very large man crammed into a tiny room, shooting notes at the corners of that room.’ I have often though of that neat phrase when experiencing the playing of Sydney tenor colossus James Ryan. Lyrical as it is, in a jazz setting  – even in his big, bad Sonic Mayhem Big Band – his playing can so strong that it sometimes threatens to immolate the horn with that same sort of phosphorescent energy Coltrane could put out.

So it makes sense that jazz-fusion is a good fit for James Ryan. Jazz-rock fusion (theoretically) takes the best of both musics – the unbridled energy of Rock and the freedom and imagination of Jazz – and combines them to make something (theoretically) greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, too much fusion seems to take, instead, the bombast of Rock and the noodling of Jazz and can be excruciatingly awful.

That said, outfits such as Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter’s Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea’s various Return to Forevers have made music that hits some stratospheric and ecstatic highs – that wouldn’t be possible in either Jazz or Rock individually.

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Ryan’s fusion super-group, The Subterraneans, are the best of the best. Comprising a core of Ryan, electric bassist Steve Hunter, drummer James Hauptmann and hyperkinetic guitarist James Muller, they are a force of nature, balancing ferocious energy with focused and sharp musical ideas. John Shand has said of The Subs “This is what the fusion of Jazz and Rock always promised but rarely delivered: sophisticated improvising harnessed to raw power.

Their recent album Live at The Townie is drawn from shows The Suberraneans performed at Newtown’s Town Hall Hotel every Sunday in February, March, April and May 2012 and Feb 2013. Every performance was recorded and eight tracks (out of over 100) were selected. Guests Rai Thistlethwayte on keys (lovely gritty Rhodes on the very Miles-ish ‘So To Speak’) and guitarist Ben Hauptmann add to the proceedings. subterraneans1

All this talk of Rock and power, howver, belies the scope of The Subterraneans’ dynamic. Opener ‘Constant Change’ is a demonstration of the freedom the band can spin music from – trippy and ambient, it is the sound of band that can truly breathe together (something surprisingly rare in ‘super-groups’). ‘So To Speak’ begins with bass-harmonic atmospheres from Steve Hunter, reminiscent of Jaco Pastorius’ ‘Continuum’, before moving through 11:09 of beautiful soloing from Ryan and the previously mentioned Thistlethwayte.

But all subtle grooving aside, it is the excitingly hair-raising pieces here that really get the band’s blood flowing – their take on ‘The Subterraneans’ makes the studio version, already a barnstorming performance, pale by comparison. Ryan’s soloing threatens to split his tenor at the seams, but it is James Muller’s shredding explorations that push the band into hyperdrive. Muller’s playing throughout is a reminder of the power in his playing, but power – as it is with every member of The Subs – that is subservient to the music and the collective momentum.

It is a rare treat to have a band bristling with soloists such as Ryan, Muller and Hunter. It is an even rarer treat when they subsume their egos to combine into such a remarkable band. And it is a yet even rarer treat when the performances of such a collective can be recorded (nice work Dave Bourke!) in a live setting with all its attendant fire and brimstone and in-the-moment immediacy. As I said, the best of the best.

The Subterraneans – Live at The Townie is released through Rippa Recordings and available from www.ripparecordings.com and Birdland.

Published May 2103 on australianjazz.net