Posts Tagged ‘New orleans’

I love all these fantastic unique ensembles popping up wherever I look! From big bands to little big bands to sex-sept-oct-nonets, the desire to create colour, flavour and harmony out of varieties of instruments and personalities seems to be growing.

Mike Nock – an abundant kind of guy himself – has described the debut album of Sydney’s Acronym Orchestra, Initially as an “abundance of ideas…an upbeat collection of original compositions”.

Yes, the septet’s sound is highly original – a horn front line driven by guitar, keys and tuba (Mr James Greening) working in all sorts of intriguing combinations and interweavings – yet, the past is not forgotten.

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From the Soweto Hi-Life shuffle of opener track, guitarist David de Vries’ ‘Miss Coconutz’ through the New Orleans street march of ‘If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It’ to the mariachi flavours of altoist Peter Farrar’s ‘Bastards’ (even if they were crap, I would give them four stars for song titles alone…), the past shadows their Now sound.

De Vries’ ‘Jesus’ has gospel flavours; tenor player James Loughnan’s ‘Branches’ digs into its own kind of blues; trumpeter Joe Derrick’s ‘Joe’s Piece’ unearths a whole different blues (maybe a shade more turquoise) yet again.

It is a wonderful thing to hear The Acronym Orchestra and many of their contemporaries joyfully celebrate and integrate and build upon the musical language of, and beyond, the Jazz tradition – blues, gospel, jump, New Orleans, and even further back to Africa and the Middle East and both West and Eastern Europe.

It is of course what the musicians then do with the tradition they have been given that separates the gilt from the dross.

Echoes from the past bounce around the walls of this music, but what The Acronym Orchestra does next will amaze you – as it did me. ‘Miss Coconutz’ is riven with angular tenor sax; ‘If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It’ grows into a nagging accelerando; ‘Bastards’ leaves Mexico behind in its jet trail; and the heavy lope of ‘Branches’ phractured Phrygian melody is gunned down in a blizzard of free blowing, with drummer James Waples poking holes through the howl.acronym1

And there is profound beauty too. Pianist Harry Sutherland’s ‘Misty’s Dilemma’ contains some pearlescent, shining horn writing. De Vries’ ‘Deep Sea’ pours out a translucent texture for Farrar’s alto lines to dart beneath like silver fish.

Album closer ‘Funeral March’ is perhaps the most startling. A jaunty, life-gripping march is answered by mourning sighs from the horns until, slowly and almost unnoticeably, the piece smears, like paint, into a wash-blur of sadness, and then… it’s gone.

‘Funeral March’ is only one example here that shows what an original voice and conception The Acronym Orchestra posses. For a debut, ‘Initially’ is truly remarkable.

And, to quote Mr Nock again, it is music – often because it is joyous, but often because it is so damn good – “that’ll put a smile on your face.”

Published February 2104 on australianjazz.net

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Jazz fads and styles may come and go but the thrill of the big band – like Classic Rock, ABBA or Mozart – will never go away. To experience the heavy impasto textures or watercolour washes of a large jazz ensemble is a buzz like no other.

Importantly, the Big Band sound harks back to a time when jazz was King (yes, kidz, a Jazz Age!) yet, at the same time, suggests a future maybe not entirely Pro-Tooled and Auto-Tuned into meek submission.

Jenna Cave and Paul Weber’s Divergence Jazz Orchestra is one of Australia’s keepers of the big band flame. More power to them.

And now we have their (astonishing) debut, The Opening Statement.

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Of course, quality – of conception, arrangement and execution – is where it’s at. This is not a nostalgia trip (if it is only that, it deserves to wither and drop) – it is music of Here and Now. Luckily, the Divergence band has arranger Cave at the helm and an astonishing array of Australia’s best and brightest to breathe (literally, in the case of the horns) life into her brilliant charts.

Check opener, ‘A Stranger In Helsinki’ – a snappy (and snapping) chart based on a nimble guitar figure (like the later tune ‘Odd Time In Mali’). The noticeable lack of piano across The Opening Statement allows a greater range of dynamics – Luke Liang’s guitar solos and comps in a lighter way, with those slightly odd guitar voicings, allowing all nuance and colour of the horns to remain at the forefront.

This is apparent in the multi-part suite ‘Dear Miss Upstill’ – one of Cave’s most idiosyncratic and adventurous charts. Led by Wil Gilbert’s understated flugelhorn, the piece grows from a melancholy prelude through a punchy middle section – with smart and funky tenor from Michael Avgenicos – back into a translucently pretty restatement. The arrangement has no fat or flab, reinforcing Cave’s skill and great ear for economy and emotional trajectory. Gilbert shines on this track and across The Opening Statement – def a player to watch.

‘And Then There Was One’ is also built on a spidery guitar figure – 7/4 then 6/4 and back again, but hey who’s counting? – and features a sharp drum break from James McCaffrey, messing with the horn riff to great effect. Cave’s arrangement keeps the rhythm section to the fore, never forgetting – unlike too many contemporary large ensemble arrangers – that rhythm is King, which is one of the many delights of her charts all over The Opening Statement.divergence3

‘Jazz Euphoria on Frenchman Street’, a chart inspired by Cave’s visit to Where-It-All-Began, New Orleans, draws out some tasty/dirty blues guitar from Liang and some real joy-in-the-telling from the band. It also reinforces Jenna Cave’s – and through her, the Divergence Jazz Orchestra’s – commitment to the tradition of jazz and the big band expression of the past, and the future. It’s a beautiful thing.

Title track, ‘The Opening Statement’ (nice title for a confident debut, n’est-ce pas?) is pure modernist tones spread across the pallet of the ensemble. The writing is clear, aquatint and astringent and speaks to me of cities and streets and bars, with neon reflecting off wet nighttime streets. It also is a very beautiful reminder of the entirely original voice of the Divergence Jazz Orchestra.

Closing track ‘Odd Time In Mali’ holds a special place in me – I first saw Sydney’s all-woman Sirens Big Band, when Cave was their altoist-arranger, grapple with its tricksy Afro-Jazz 9/8 rhythm at their inaugural gig a couple of years back and it made me prick up my ears to this young arranger on the block, Jenna Cave.

Smoothing out to straight 4’s for a range of solo workouts (Weber trom, Matt Collins tpt, Josh Willard alto, David Groves bass and McCaffrey dms), ‘Odd Time In Mali’ seems to encapsulate the joy, chops and colour of the Divergence Jazz Orchestra.

The Opening Statement is, all up, one hell of an opening statement from a group that – it is apparent – has a hell of lot more to say. I, for one, am all ears for anything else they want to shout my way.

 

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Prior to posting this review I asked Jenna Cave a handful of questions. Here are her responses:

 

John Hardaker:  What was the spark that led to the formation of The Divergence Jazz Orchestra?

Jenna Cave: For so long it was one of those “dream scenario” fantasies that seemed impossible but that I couldn’t get out of my head. I remember about 7 years ago (when I was 22) I had a saxophone student who was about ten or fifteen years older than me. I think he thought it was inspiring that I was a musician.  He asked me “If you could do anything with music, what would you do, ultimate dream scenario” I thought for a minute and just blurted out of nowhere “to have my own big band that I get to compose for”. On election night 2010 one of my friends had a house party and a bunch of musicians were there. Paul Weber and I were chatting and he told me he wanted to form a big band, then I said ” Hey! I want to form a big band”. By the end of the night we’d pretty much decided we were going to form a big band together down the track. Then when we both had some time to dedicate to it in 2012, so it began.

JH: To compose, organise, record and perform with a jazz orchestra is a huge undertaking. What is the rush that makes it all more than worthwhile?

JC: I love composing. I love getting in the creative zone where all that exists is you, and the music in your imagination. It’s a fun place to be. Having your music performed really well, especially when it carries forth your emotional intentions, is an incredible feeling. For me there is no better way to express how I experience the world.

JH: The band is pretty much packed with some of the best and brightest of today’s young players. Do you seek them out or do they gravitate towards you? 

JC: When we started the band Paul and I had many a long discussion about who to recruit. In the end the bulk of the band we first put together were in the Con big band when we were both there (Paul doing jazz trombone, myself doing masters in composition). As time went on some players moved on as people do, and the new players we got on board tended to be people we knew and had worked with, or that other people in the band had worked with. Rapport is very important, considering we don’t rehearse all the time, existing musical relationships are very handy to draw from. Equally, it’s important to have players who are willing and keen to put in the group rehearsal hours. Even if someone is a great player, if they don’t want to be a team player there’s not much point with what we are doing here.

JH: Your compositions have always struck me as highly original in concept – where do they come from?

JC: I have heaps of influences, there so much music I love. But I don’t think this inspires me to go and write music to sound like those musicians. I mean sometimes ill like a groove and want to write something with that feel, but mostly other people’s music just opens up my imagination to all the possibilities. So when I compose I just sit down and write what I’d like to hear.

Sometimes this can take me a long time, because ill have a vague concept in my head of a sound that I imagined, but then actually getting that on to paper can take a lot of fumbling until you can hear it clearly. It’s very exciting composing this way though. It means you are following your instincts and intuition which is a lovely way to express yourself and have your own voice.

JH: What are your thoughts on the state of large jazz ensemble musical  today?

JC: There seems to be a fair bit happening!

JH: What are your thoughts on mainstream music in general today?

Not much, I don’t really follow it. Occasionally there’s something mainstream that I will really enjoy, but mostly I just listen to music that catches my ear.

 

Published October 2103 on australianjazz.net 

 

 

The illusion of much modern recorded band-oriented music (dance is a whole other trip of course) is that it is played live: the whole band laying it down for you in one perfect passionate take.

Of course, since Les Paul in the early 1950s, multitrack recording has allowed the performance to be staggered in time – pulled apart and put back together. The rise of huge multitrack desks in the late 70s and early 80s took multitrack recording to an almost ridiculous level, and of course ProTools has carried recording beyond ridiculous – to a degree where every touch of a hi-hat can be modelled and moulded to diamond-like perfection.

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There are certain forms of music that benefit from such infinite care and almost forensic sound-shaping. And there are musics that don’t. The latter is music that is based on a rawness and immediacy that is part of its intrinsic make-up – such as Blues.

Tasmanian (yes, folks that’s about as far from Chicago as you can get) Blues guitarist Pete Cornelius recorded his new album Groundswell in a neighbour’s holiday house in Elephant Pass, virtually entirely live. And it shows.

There is a theory that says that every step of the process between the artist’s heart and the listener’s ear diminishes the emotional force of what the artist is trying to say. If true, that certainly applies to simpler, more direct music such as country, blues and roots where there is not too much left once you strip the emotive power away. Cornelius’ decision to record live was smart, and as good a proof of this theory as I have heard for a while.

Cornelius made his name fronting The DeVilles, a hard rockin’ Texas blues powerhouse that matched Cornelius’ SRV-style gun-slinger trip. But the band has settled into a more mellow thing, firstly on Pete’s last album Tumbleweed and the new one Groundswell. As his music has focused on songwriting, it has taken on extra dimension, away from guitar solos and Texas raunch.

Not that there are no longer moments of real guitar fire – the Hendrix-howl solo on ‘Repo Man’ shows where Cornelius’ rep comes from. But hopefully Groundswell will give him a parallel rep as a warm-hearted songwriter for songs such as opener ‘Drinking the Blues’ – a sly New Orleans groove – or the very pretty ‘Goodnight My Love’ – a soul lullaby to his new young daughter.groundswell-cover-small

And like SRV, like Eric Clapton, Cornelius’ voice is a perfect foil for his guitar-playing – check acoustic closer ‘Strong Suit’, a song so nicely rendered I truly expect to see it covered by other artists. There is a slight country lilt to his voice which works equally well across the Meters-like hipshaker ‘Talkin’ Bout New Orleans’ and the sinewy lope of ‘Cold Water’ (with its wry – and very funny – lyric), and matches the country-blues filigree of his playing.

His playing – yes, still dazzling and highly original while still reflecting the colours and shapes of his obvious influences  – is nicely balanced against the songwriting and vocal (and great band interpretations of the songs) across the album. A player of Pete Cornelius’ imagination and great fingers could just put out another collection of sizzling jams and the Australian Blues audience would eat it up.

It is testament to his musical evolution – that quality that separates out the true long-term artists in any genre – that he went for a wider palette of colours and emotions that make up Groundswell.

Published September 2013 on theorangepress.net

In James Ryan’s liner notes to Aaron Michael’s eponymous debut, Aaron Michael, he mentions that the Sydney saxophonist took an unusual tack when picking the players for these sessions. He put together people who did not usually play together, players from different parts of the jazz community – a risky move, but one which paid off, as the band appears to greatly relish the new accents and flavours of the experiment. You can hear their buzz jumping from the tracks.

pic aaron blakey

pic aaron blakey

In the goldfish bowl of the Australian jazz scene this might be the sort of calculated risk that we need to see more of. All evolution needs diversity and the occasional short sharp shock to the status quo.

Opener ‘Leytonstone’ is an immediate illustration of the ensemble’s joy: a bright expression of positivity – a happy strut with maybe a whiff of New Orleans gumbo, the tune’s broad smile disguises an intricate melody – intricate in harmony as well as phrasing. Michael digs in for a solo duet with drummer Paul Derricott that cuts up hot and sweet.

And here it must be mentioned that Aaron Michael’s playing has not had the edge knocked off, despite being the go-to horn-guy who seems to be playing all the time, with everyone… everywhere… Consummate professionalism can be a hell of a thing – too many players lose their own identity, their own voice, working nine-to-five replicating the voices of others, as superbly as that may be. But the most beautiful thing, ultimately, is a musician’s own voice, as it has all the scars and laugh-lines and happy-sads of life which make it as unique as fingerprints or a face. Session work can suck that right out of a player.

Aaron Michael’s voice is as true to himself as he would want – a clean, nimble, modern tenor tone, unadorned with effects or false sentiment, it is astringently honest. Check ‘Por Favor’, a lanquid pulseless ballad that Michael’s soprano floats over – bringing to mind Wayne Shorter’s ability to express every part of the straight sax’s vocabulary, sometimes within the same phrase: the sharp jabs widening out to round, sonorous tones. (The lovely bonus track at the end of the CD is for once, truly a bonus – a second take of ‘Por Favor’ with a spare piano accompaniment – lovely stuff indeed).

‘Here and Now’ shows Aaron Michael’s compositional strengths – it is a piece of contrasts: 3/4 against 4/4, swing pulse against straight, with a smartly conceived ensemble section towards the latter part of the tune (and, as a bon-bon, a typically measured and balanced piano solo from Matt McMahon). Michael’s ‘Spicy Beans’ with its rush-hour head and his 9/8 gospel blues ‘Communion’ (with a testifying bass solo from Duncan Brown) are sharp pieces of writing that also show him as a jazz composer to watch.aaron michael Album cover

‘Spicy Beans’ and Paul Derricott’s ‘Evening Haze’ have the band plugging into some fusion electricity. Guitarist Dieter Kleeman snaps, crackles and shreds on these – an impressive player equally at home playing a sweet acoustic jazz tone on the opener ‘Leytonstone’. The whole band, in fact, strongly convinces on the rock pieces while remaining totally mesmerising on the more ‘jazz’ tunes.

But as hot as the players are, and as fine as Aaron Michael’s compositions may be, it is really his playing which makes Aaron Michael such a startling debut. As a pointer, the sheer beauty and downright ‘heart’ of his solo on the last piece ‘Communion’ is a small masterclass in blues, restraint, humanity in music and transcendence of technique. Modern jazz has always been a balancing act between science and poetry, chops and soul – and sadly, too many players fall for the formulae and lose the funk.

Gladly, Aaron Michael is not one of them and you need go no further than Aaron Michael for actual proof.

Aaron Michael is available from http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/aaronmichael2

Aaron Michael’s website is http://aaronmichaelband.com/

Published June 2103 on australianjazz.net 

Firmly established in its 24th year as one of the premier music festivals of the world, the Byron Bay Bluesfest continues to top its already heady highs. The lineup for this year’s festival was a dream program for lovers of blues and roots music and anything else festival director Peter Noble decided to throw our way.

Criticised in the past for veering too far from its original blues brief, Bluesfest has outgrown these criticisms purely by booking the biggest acts in the world, and some of the most interesting – over the past few years headliners have been Bob Dylan, B B King, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Yes, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty, Paul Simon and (almost) Roger Daltrey performing Tommy (even though Daltrey didn’t show – next year maybe?).

Noble’s knack for picking the greats, blues or not – and a demonstration of the power he wields on the world festival circuit in doing so – was vindicated by this year’s record attendance: capacity crowds of 17,000 per day which adds up to 85,000 in toto.

And I was one of those fools dancing in the rain. And the smile is still on my face.

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Taj Mahal

Accompanied by Gaz T, my intrepid local tracker and native guide, my 24th Byron Bay Bluesfest experience started on the Friday with the wonderful Taj Mahal. Mahal was one of those bluesmen – like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee – that the 1970s hippie freaks took to their hearts back in those fragrant days. His popularity has remained undiminished since then. As is often the case, I expected a creaky veteran, tottering on a chair – but what we got was a big man, standing tall, whipping his trio through modern blues, pre-war country blues and even calypso flavoured blues. Yeah!

And if Taj Mahal surprised me with his age-denying vigour, reggae and ska legend Jimmy Cliff utterly floored me. Cliff was already a star in Jamaica while Bob Marley was merely learning his trade, and at 65 he has lost nothing – twisting, dancing, leaping through his set. It is this pin-sharp showmanship that reminds us of the huge influence classic 60s Motown had on pre-Marley Jamaican artists. Slick, soulful and bang-on, his beautiful songs had heart, message and groove.

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Jimmy Cliff

Shuggie Otis

Shuggie Otis

While everyone headed to Steve Miller in one of the big tents, I moved towards the smaller Jambalaya stage and blues guitarist Shuggie Otis. Otis was a child prodigy of the blues guitar, the son of rhythm-and-blues bandleader Johnny Otis. After a few semi-hits in the 70s he faded from view. After a 40 year hiatus for whatever reason, he is back touring the world and I could not miss him. Rail thin and now with the angular almost-Latin good looks of his father, Shuggie seemed troubled and ill at ease. But when he found his zone and soared, he soared higher and higher. His beautiful playing took my breath completely away. In a way it was more exciting to see an artist who could easily miss, but hit it so well; compared to all the other in-the-pocket coolly-pro bands at Bluesfest, Otis’s set had that element of danger. Sublime and edgy.

Then the rain hit and my Bluesfest experience sprung a leak. Not having brought a raincoat or wet-weather gear I was soaked to the skin in minutes. Not being able to squeeze into the Steve Miller tent I stood in the rain and watched him play ‘Fly Like An Eagle’ – rain will come and go, the beautiful epoch-defining voice of The Space Cowboy (some call him Maurice…) singing this glorious freedom song was here and now. Around me, teenage fans danced in the rain to Miller’s golden period hits, singing every word to ‘Rockin’ Me Baby’ and ‘The Joker’. It’s only rain, it can soak our skin but it can’t dampen our spirit.

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Carlos Santana

Keeping the San Fran psychedelic vibe going – albeit in a very very different way – Santana’s set began with cosmic interstellar graphics fading in and out of the two huge screens either side of the stage. Then it was a brief drum roll from drummer Dennis Chambers and the Santana band roared into 1971’s ‘Toussaint L’Overture’. As well as Chambers, the percussion backline was made up of long-time conguero Raul Rekow and Karl Perazza on timbales – who together propelled the music like a freight-train, but a freight-train which skips and dances lightly along the track. Of course the main voice of this band has always been the elegant guitar playing of Carlos Santana – always lyrical, always going for the emotional connection over the empty dazzle of technique. Which ultimately makes him, above and beyond his Latin and jazz phrasing, one hell of a great blues guitarist – as we heard from a short (and all too rare) snatch of Santana playing some straight blues during the set. Can music reviewers still use words like ‘celestial’? I guess I just did, because it is the only word I have left to describe Santana’s unearthly performance.

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi

The day ended with a truly soulful set from The Tedeschi-Trucks Band. The absolute highlight of my first ‘Fest two years ago, the band of slide ex-wünderkind Derek Trucks and his wife, vocalist Susan Tedeschi never fails to amaze. For their 2013 return they brought their three-man horn section along and their firepower went up a notch. The thrilling ‘Midnight In Harlem’ – a song that is built on an almost sexual upward curve – had Trucks’ solo coda taking it up and up into that region that Carlos Santana used to (and I am sure still does) call ‘spiritual orgasm’.

I was saturated with rain, good vibes and killer music. And I still had two days to go.

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Allen Toussaint

Saturday we eased in with the once and future king of the Big Easy himself, New Orleans magus Allen Toussaint. The man’s CV is virtually a history of modern R&B, soul and funk and his urbane cool belies his immense impact in shaping these musics. As if his beautiful, artfully funky music (and stunningly virtuosic piano playing) wasn’t gift enough, he threw Mardi Gras masks (and green and yellow AFL footballs?) to the crowd. A charmer in every way.

After a while cruising the human river and people watching (a Bluesfest pastime in itself) I chanced upon Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. And it was one of those wonderful music moments when seeing a band live makes you an instant fan – all subsequent listening experiences filtered through that thrilling ‘Eureka!’ moment of discovery. Wilco’s music seems to beat with the same American-classic heart at the centre of the songs of Neil Young and the darker Bruce Springsteen material. The band (especially guitarist Nels Cline) seem to be able to paint perfect soundscapes behind any of Tweedy’s songs, be they dark rockers or sweeter country-tinged ballads. A revelation.

Floating on the beauty of Wilco’s music I was yanked back down to earth by Status Quo. Britain’s answer to AC/DC, the indestructible Quo have been playing the same song for over 40 years – a variant on 12-bar pub boogie that has sold 118 million albums (think about that figure for a minute). Watching their flawless set, with mainstays Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt rocking hard before banks of white Marshalls, I could (almost) forgive them their awful Coles ads. Some bands are simply a force of nature and Quo are a blast of the simple joy of undiluted rock’n’roll.

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Robert Plant’s Sensational Shape Shifters

The straight-from-the-botttle thrust of Quo was perhaps a good brain-scourer –  an astringent appetiser – for the almost too-rich feast that was Robert Plant, which followed next. The fabled Led Zeppelin vocalist has been the main obstacle to any Led Zep reunions, as he has always moved forward with his music, taking his former band’s world-music aesthetic to greater heights than they ever did. His new band, The Sensational Shape Shifters, are the best version of Plant’s patented future-primitive groove – to one side of the stage we have Juldeh Camara working a Gambian wooden banjo, to the other side keyboardist John Baggott (ex-Massive Attack) sits in a nest of synths and laptops. Plant acknowledged the faithful with a few Led Zeppelin tunes, but messed with their anthem ‘Whole Lotta Love’, bedding it in a chugging African drum figure. Unlike almost every other ‘legendary’ act at Bluesfest he made no attempt to recreate his past, instead giving us a show we would think about for many months to come – a show driven by the restless creativity and often contrary nature of a true and uncompromising artist.

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Sunday we awoke to clouds and gray skies over the succulent green of Byron Shire. At the ‘Fest, Tony Joe White’s Swamp-Fox baritone conspired with the dull skies to lull us into maybe too deep a state of ‘relaxation’. We needed a wake-up!

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Saskwatch

And we got it in the shape of Melbourne nine-piece Saskwatch. Bursting with chops and youth – and fronted by their not-so-secret weapon, vocalist Nkechi Anele – the band mixes soul, funk and Afrobeat horns to great effect. Like Mayer Hawthorne in the US they also take the bouncier, pop-soul side of Motown and do great things with it. Last year it was The Eagle and The Worm that assured me music is in good hands for the future – this year is was the snap, crackle and (soul-)pop of Saskwatch.

My 2013 Bluesfest experience wound to a finish in a mix of rain, muddy dancers and 1970s progressive rock classicism. Jon Anderson, the vocalist of perhaps the greatest of all Prog bands, YES, played an intimate solo show for us that was quite sublime. (Oddly, YES played Bluesfest last year with –surreally – a replacement vocalist who was drawn from a YES covers band). Listening to Anderson peppering his set with acoustic, folky versions of YESsongs made me realise that it was in this form these tunes were written and presented to the band – who then proceeded to inflate them to Prog size. Unadorned with pomp, they are lovely songs, Anderson’s voice is one of the sweetest in all Rock and the man is once of our most beloved space cadets.

My prize for 24th Bluesfest Festival Moment goes, however, to the experience of standing in the teeming rain, with my 5 dollar poncho disintegrating on my back as I listened to Supertramp’s Roger Hodgson singing ‘It’s Raining Again’ (with not a drop of irony from what I could gather). But of course, the magic of his songs – one beautifully uplifting hit after another – sung in his spacey tenor blew away the rainclouds in my head and warmed the souls of all who listened. Once again, it’s only rain; this was bliss, a good reason to live right here, right now.

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Beautiful people

So that was it – right there, right then. Bluesfest 2013 – a festival beyond belief in so many ways. Criticisms? Around me I heard faint grumbles of over-selling and over crowding, and yes, it seemed fuller that previous years. But it is never anything like a problem – considering the logistics of an event that has grown to such proportions, artistically and attendance-wise.

What will Peter Noble conjure up for us next year? Being the 25th Bluesfest, he and his intrepid team will need to go beyond the pale to top the jaw-dropping line-ups of the last few years. The Jimi Hendrix Experience? The Beatles? Elvis Presley (pre-Hollywood of course)? I am just putting it out there – and knowing Noble’s almost supernatural powers (coupled with the soul of a true music fan), I really wouldn’t entirely put it past him.

 

Published April 2013 on megaphoneoz.com

Often in modern popular music – especially that of the blues and roots flavour – the city of the music’s origin can become, in a way, another member of the band. It can become a silent but also very loud member, as the city’s voice, spirit and mojo can colour the music as much as any of the living, breathing human members involved. That city could be New York, London or Chicago – but more often than not that city is (yes, we are talking about voice, spirit and mojo) New Orleans.nola-1-267

Funk godfathers, The Meters, were that rare thing – a ‘muso’ band that gained huge everyday popularity from the start. Astounding musicians individually, they conjured an easy yet hard-hitting groove style which epitomised that Holy Grail of musicians: ‘loose-yet-tight’ (if you have to ask what that means you will, sadly, never know). Their hits, such as 1969’s ‘Cissy Strut’ and 1970’s ‘Look-Ka Py Py’ were instantly influential among musicians and yet equally a hit with people on the dancefloor as well (and greatly loved by hip-hop samplers such as LL Cool J, Run DMC, NWA and, well… everybody). This is down to a large degree to The Meters’ New Orleans origins – it seems an unwritten law of any music that emanates from the city known as ‘The Big Easy’ that if the people don’t dig it, it ain’t worth a fig. This applies to artists from Fats Domino through to Dr John The Night Tripper and today’s Trombone Shorty and jazz trumpeter Christian Scott.

On 5th May this year, the original Meters – keys man and vocalist Art Neville, guitarist Leo Nocentelli, bassist George Porter Jr., and drummer (the wonderfully named) Zigaboo Modeliste – reunited for a concert at New Orleans’ club Howlin’ Wolf. This was one of only a handful of times the original Meters had got together since splitting in 1977. (Apparently tickets to the Howlin’ Wolf show sold out in an hour and a half). I just want to say, God bless the person who decided to turn on the tape machine – the resulting Live Album is a gem.

fm-1-251The band tear into opener ‘Fire On The Bayou’, originally from the 1975 album of the same name, as if they have never been away. The four just love to play together – the vibe oozes from the speakers. Art Neville jokingly refers to the gig as “senior citizen funk” (adding that in five years it will be “food stamp funk”) but there is nothing remotely creaky or stiff-jointed about The Meters tonight.

In fact, this is the toughest i think i have ever heard them sound. Nocentelli’s guitar is cranked and his solos are, as Buddy Guy used to say “so funky you can taste it”. Modeliste is utterly in the pocket and together with George Porter Jr – especially on a churning groove such as ‘He Bite Me (The Dragon)’ or the iconic ‘Cissy Strut’ – prove yet again why they were the most imitated funk rhythm section of the 70s.

Once the band get on a groove they don’t want to let go. The three-song medley that begins with the laidback ‘Africa’, turning into ‘Look-Ka Py Py’ and then morphing into ‘Funky Miracle’ is 22:17 of pure, undiluted funky joy. Hits like ‘Hey Pocky A-Way’ seem to turn the band on like the first time they jammed it in rehearsal (‘Hey Pocky A-Way’ stretches to a hot and sweaty nine-minutes-plus) and the closer ‘People Say’ goes to seventeen-and-a-half minutes – you can feel that The Meters just don’t want to let go.

The live recording is beautifully LIVE in every way – living, breathing, dancing its ass off – with nice verité touches like not editing back the band’s stage announcements and intros. You really feel as if you were there. The Meters don’t care about taste or restraint or any of that anaemic jazz-funk knitting – they invented this music and they will play it as heavy and dirty as they like.

The Meters Live at Howlin’ Wolf Album is available from https://www.munckmusic.com/wms/jazzfest/index.html

Check Katja Liebing’s fantastic gallery of shots from the actual Howlin’ Wolf gig here

Photos by Katja Liebing http://www.bluemoonphotography.me/#home

Published December 2012 on theorangepress.net

 

 

New Orleans piano funk master Jon Cleary is living proof that you don’t have to be born to a thing to become its leading light. Whatever you want to be, you can just go out and (with a lot of work – and, yes, balls of steel) you can be whatever you want.

Twenty years ago, Cleary first got the NOLA bug almost 5,000 miles away, in Kent in the UK – the Englishman moved to The Crescent City to try his luck and is today one of the finest exponents of the New Orleans piano-vocal style.

I saw him a little over a year ago as part of the Legends of New Orleans Tour along with the wizard of the genre, Allen Toussaint. Cleary performed that tour with his turn-on-a-dime rhythm section, The Philthy Phew. Prior to that he had toured Australia with his immensely popular and genre-defining group, the wonderfully named Absolute Monster Gentlemen.

But tonight at Sydney’s Basement he was alone. Just him, a Steinway grand and a rapt audience, hanging on his every note. He emerged in cream suit and trademark big-brimmed hat (also cream) and explained that he had just come off a long, long flight and would it be cool if he played a little piano for us?

Yes, it was cool with us. Which was fortunate, because before he sang a note Jon Cleary treated the Basement audience to a master-class in New Orleans piano virtuosity. Like a roots-Rachmaninov, Cleary – unencumbered by the frameworks that even the most telepathic band has to adhere to – took free flight, moving in and out of time, in and out of key, suggesting a blues here, a sing-song melody there. The great charm of New Orleans music is that it is as virtuosic as any form of jazz but it never loses its groove – its feet are on the earth at all times, and they are usually dancing. It is Jazz, but jazz for everyone.

Cleary’s Steinway extemporisations gradually wound down enough for him to sing – it was his version of the murder ballad “Stagger Lee”, very freely done. When we finally got a chance to applaud, the place went wild.

But Cleary flew between songs, not taking much time for talk. He did however take time out to preface a Professor Longhair 8-bar blues which took in elements of the NOLA classic “Tipitina” – Cleary explained that the 8-bar blues can be ‘messed with’, which he did – and did some more. And then some more…

He reached into his back catalogue for the funk of “Help Me Somebody” and the bootie-roll of “I Feel So Damn Good (I’ll Be Glad When I Get the Blues)”. He also played a couple of selections from his new album “Occapella” – an album made up of only Allen Toussaint tunes. The reading of Toussaint’s knowing “What Do You Want The Girl To Do?” was particularly tender.

Jon Cleary’s command of this music is mind-bending – again and again taking a simple form and twisting and turning it, inside out and upside down, while miraculously never taking it too far above-the-waist. That is the genius of New Orleans music and the particular genius of the amazing Jon Cleary, the funkiest Englishman you are likely to meet.

Photos by Katja Liebing, Blue Moon Photography.

Published November 2012 on theorangepress.net