Posts Tagged ‘Stevie Wonder’

There is a cruel joke told about the ‘child prodigy’ in music. It goes ‘When he was four, he played like a twenty year old; when he was twenty, he played like a twenty year old; when he was forty, he played like a twenty year old.’

But behind the cruelty, there is an equally cruel truth: few, very very few, precocious performers continue to grow, exponentially, into fully fledged geniuses – remarkable humans whose art and spiritual humanity continue in an unbroken arc of brilliance until their later life. Yehudi Menuhin and Stevie Wonder, almost definitely; Nigel Kennedy and Michael Jackson, maybe not.

For all the right reasons, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is held up as the child genius whose creative arc was perfect into adulthood. From his first compositions at the age of five (think about it) to his death at only thirty-five in 1791, Mozart composed over 600 works – pushing the art of music forward indelibly, each work building on the discoveries, flashes and insights of the previous.

Brandenburg Jupiter2

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, under leader Paul Dyer, have built their Concert Series 4 for 2014 around Mozart’s last symphony, his 41st – The ‘Jupiter’. But, as ever, Dyer has balanced perfectly it with two contrasting and stunning works from different times in Mozart’s life.

The Overture to the opera ‘Lucio Silla’ was written in 1772, when he was only 16. The ‘Concerto for Flute and Harp’ from 1778, was composed six years later in Paris, during a time Mozart chafed against the social and creative constrictions to his art.

The Overture immediately put me into that warm place that The Brandenburg conjures effortlessly. This human-scale music, played on period instruments, with all their attendant pearly and woody tones, lights a glow in the heart and in the soul that few other ensembles, or musical experiences can. Led through its three short movements by Dyer at the forte-piano, the ensemble sparkled, glowed and danced with the music, now heatedly, now slowly.

Mozart’s ‘Concerto for Flute and Harp’ – originally written for the Comte de Guines, an accomplished flautist with connections to the French Royal Court and his daughter, a harpist – was a delight, and a perfect example of the singular joy that this music played on the instruments it was written for can reveal. Melissa Farrow’s Baroque flute filled the Recital Centre with an airy, sweet birdsong, light-winged and luminous – its tone all round pearls, so different to its modern cousin’s diamond edge. Marshall McGuire’s harp sparkled in and around the flute and the ensemble passages, mirroring and doubling melodies and fragments of melodies brilliantly.Brandenburg Jupiter1

Both Farrow and McGuire are international bright lights, as is the Brandenburg itself, yet they all play together with such abiding joy and humanity that glittering prizes and even more glittering CVs are put aside and we are in the moment – as all great music should be.

The ‘Jupiter’ – Mozart’s final symphony and the last of three written in six weeks – has always been tantalising in its suggestion of what might have been. The invention, the compositional strides and innovations all point towards even greater things. And to hear it played so full-bloodedly tonight was to be just a little more in awe of Mozart, and of the Brandenburg.

The thirty or more players – with Paul Dyer conducting, not playing – dug in deep on the forte sections, almost recalling the blasts and rages of Beethoven. Mozart obviously relished the power and glory of the large ensemble in his writing and Dyer channelled that joy. As with all great conductors, Paul Dyer ‘plays’ the ensemble rather than conducts, drawing out all of the quirks and subtleties in the music from the players, and not the instruments. His orchestra is people, not technicians and that is what I have always felt makes them great.

The opening movement was stunning, both with the size of the Orchestra’s sound and the lively attack. The second movement – the Andante Cantabile – sang and swung lyrically and lightly. The Minuet and Trio was played with a sweet smile across its face.

The final movement of Mozart’s final symphony – Allegro Molto – is where things really come alive. Alive to tour ears, alive to possibility: the possibilities of art, the possibilities of being human, which ought to be one and the same, and in the hand of true genius, are.

The diversity and texture in Mozart’s writing is what you first notice. Then the invention and sense of play begins to thrill – the motifs and themes are passed around the instrument sections, even around the instruments themselves. Counterpoint is everywhere, but not as mathematics, as play – as the language of genius at play.

Some distinctly unusual, almost jazz, harmonies rise and fall. Yet amidst all this lattice of invention and colour, the sense of melody and forward movement is never lost. It is dazzling and uplifting, and The ‘Jupiter’ beggars what might have been.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra truly gives it the reading the work deserves – they are discovering and enjoying it in parallel to us, it seems. Life is what Mozart’s music bursts with, as well as a very human spirituality. The same can always be said of Paul Dyer and The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.


Published Septermber 2014 on




Outside of hardcore jazz, albums built around a particular instrument are rare. If they do exist, they are either impenetrably virtuosic, one-trick ponies or for shred-heads only. Which kind of makes them a failure as music, in a way, if the value of music is to move you and me and my uncle Bernard.

When an album is built around the drums, the potential for failure increases. It is a brave artist – one with a true and deep belief in their ability to move their listeners, above and below the waist – who would attempt to carry it off.


In the case of New Zealand drum polymath, Myele Manzanza it helps to be the son of Congolese master percussionist, Sam Manzanza. It also help that Myele Manzanza concieves of the drums as a “talking” instrument, one with a language which can speak to people. “Growing up, music and rhythm was all around me and I understood it from a very early age. Through my father I learnt the language of the drum probably at the same time as I learnt to talk!”

Long a core member of New Zealand’s acclaimed modern jazz-soul group, Electric Wire Hustle, Manzanza has stepped forward with his debut solo album, One.

And as if to lay out the fact that this is no po-faced instrumental professional’s showreel, One starts with the wickedly funny ‘Neighbour’s Intro’ – a jittering polyrhythmic drum solo sandwiched between two phone messages from politely irate neighbours calling to complain about Manzanza’s nocturnal drum practicing.

While we are smirking he smacks us with the roller coaster ride of ‘Big Space’, a 7/4 latin groove that carves its way through a dense, muli-coloured mesh of electro, shooting out the other end with a lovely wordless vocal from Bella Kalolo – reminiscent of 50s sci-fi movie soundtracks, but definitely cruising the Space of Now.Print

Kalolo features – with lyric this time – on the smooth-as-skin ‘Absent’ next: a cool soul groove built across an angular skeleton. The groove here is typical of Manzanza’s thing – irresistible drum rhythms which are built from highly original architectures: quite beautiful from whichever angle you look at them.

An example is ‘Delay’ which has Manzanza playing with the shapes thrown back at him by reverb echo delay – on the surface quite a simple backbeat but the ripples beneath the waters lend it a shimmering sparkle.

The lovely ‘Elvin’s Brew’ features keys player (and major collaborator) Mark de Clive Lowe. Perhaps namechecking jazz drum colossus Elvin Jones (and Miles Davis‘ Bitches Brew) the track is built on a dreamlike cloud of billowing tom-toms under acoustic keys and electro blips-and-snaps.

Other guests include Myele’s father, Sam Manzanza, NZ’s Ladi 6, Bella Kalolo, Mara TK and Rachel Fraser. International guests include Charlie K from ex-Philadelphia Hip Hop group ‘Writtenhouse’, Canadian vocalist Amenta and James Wylie’s Boston based woodwind section.

The lovely woodwinds form a spectral backwash to the completely transporting ‘City of Atlantis’, their timbre reminiscent of Herbie Hancock‘s psych-funk albums of the 70s such as Speak Like A Child. There are so many flavours here from a similar time and headspace – Stevie Wonder synth squiggles, Weather Report ‘world’ beatz (dig the pan-African percussion of ‘7 Bar Thing’), George Duke Rhodes phat phunk.

The old and the new, the acoustic and the digital, soul and jazz, rap and song – all these strands are bound together by the tight yet embracing sinew of Myele Manzanza’s omniscient drums.

He says of One: “Creating this album has been a real process. Each track has it’s own story and developed in it’s own interesting and sometimes unexpected way. This is my first experience in creating my own solo full length body of work and the guest artists were great in helping me to realise my vi­sion. It was also really exciting to work with a woodwind sec­tion in Boston with James Wylie, and see a little fragment of harmony I was messing around with turn into the blooming orchestral parts of ‘City of Atlantis’ and ‘7 Bar Thing’.”

Blooming. One has a feeling of flowering and blooming, a joyful and summery efflorescence that could not come from a mere virtuoso. It need to come from a Musician – there is a difference.

And if you don’t know the difference, check out Myele Manzanza’s One and you will.

Myele Manzanza’s website is here.

Published September 2013 on

Among the slew of bedroom Beyoncés and preteen chirrupers that grind through the X-Factor/Idol/Voice talent-quest mill it is nice to see the occasional hardworking muso get up. It is also nice when success in these nationally broadcast spectacles pushes the career of said hardworking muso into a better place.

Sure, there is always the danger of being seen as ‘selling out’ (whatever that can still possibly mean today) or losing one’s hard-won street fan base, but it is a danger the artist’s popularity should over come. I was happy to see Wes Carr get up on Idol in 2008, and I was even happier to see Darren Percival take out runner up on this year’s The Voice.


Percival has been a well respected and admired performer on the scene – always a knockout as the looping Mr Percival – for years. The story goes he had 18 dollars in the bank when he received the call-up from The Voice – now he tours nationally. And long may he run.

His recent release, A Tribute To Ray Charles – apart from being a great listen – is a smart move. In one fell swoop, the choice of recreating, beautifully, fifteen tracks made famous by Brother Ray will simultaneously satisfy his new fans (his Voice persona was soul man supreme), not alienate his existing fans (anything to do with Ray Charles will be eternally cool) and move him into the next phase of his journey (tuxedo’d no-sweat big stage performer).

Another smart thing about this choice is that it doesn’t take much for Percival to slip into Ray Charles’ musical skin. Neither man has a conventionally smooth voice, yet both exude a larger than life joyousness in delivery which can generate an excitement that whips the audience (and their bands) along – witness Percival’s take on Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Believe (When I Fall In Love)’ on the Voice finale, a brave choice of song which he turns into a vehicle for some gospel-sized intensity.

Of course, gospel-sized intensity was always Ray Charles’ forte. After all, the man invented Soul music by secularising (and sexualising) the frenzied church music of the American South. He didn’t have to do too much to it either – the call-and-response, high stepping rhythms, melismatic vocal swoops and fevered abandon were already there.

Despite going for a broader appeal, on A Tribute To Ray Charles Darren Percival keeps the wildness and ecstatic edge of the Charles’ originals intact. The band behind him bristles with Australia’s finest – James Morrison, Hamish Stuart, Matt Keegan, go-to-guitar-guy Rex Goh among them – who sound as if they are having as much fun as Mr Percival on the stompers such as ‘I Got A Woman’ or ‘What’d I Say’. But they can equally sound like they are weeping into their beers on the country-Soul gems ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’.

Charles always had great fun (not only with the music but also often too with the sexual politics of the time) with his female backing vocalists, The Raelettes. Vocalists Prinnie Stephens and Mahalia Barnes step up and spar with Percival, most excitingly on ‘Hit The Road, Jack’, recreating Charles’ 1961 sass session with Margie Hendricks.

All the hits are here. By the end of the fifteen tracks on A Tribute To Ray Charles the listener has been hipped, flipped, seduced and hallelujahed into a sweet submission. I would perhaps have liked to see a little more play with the arrangements and delivery, but I am sure the decision to not veer too far from the Charles’ originals is all part of the plan.

I sincerely hope the plan comes together perfectly for Darren Percival. He – like all hardworking musos – deserves it.

Published November 2012 on

Sydney tenor saxophonist and composer Richard Maegraith is a deep human being. A committed Christian and free-thinking artist, his work has always resonated with a sophisticated spirituality while maintaining a heartfelt directness. Whether it be blowing tenor with the Australian Jazz A-list – James Morrison, Sean Wayland etc – or whether leading his own ensembles, his voice and soul are unmistakable.

For their new album, The Richard Maegraith Band has become the intriguingly titled Galaxstare. The album title is equally thought provoking – A Time, Times and Half a Time. For this album – recorded live at Sydney’s Sound Lounge – the personnel remains the same as 2007’s buoyant Free Running but you can hear the development from Track One.

And what a Track One it is! ‘Romans VII’ snips along in a clipped Latin groove before relaxing down into a languorous swoon of jazz vocal; the track moves back and forth from one tempo to the other throughout – this band really breathes. Throughout the album, the spicy doubling and great interplay of Maegraith’s horn and Kristin Berardi’s vocal again reminded me of Chick Corea’s early 70s band with Flora Purim, before the synths moved in and Purim moved out.

And like Chick Corea, Maegraith is not afraid to move beyond of the bounds of whatever constitutes jazz in his time, (he refers to Galaxstare’s music as “Jazz-ish sort of music; call it what you will”). His pairing of voice and tenor with Gary Daley’s accordian and/or Rhodes makes for some otherworldly results.

For the title track, ‘A Time, Times and Half a Time’, this otherworldliness goes beyond anything I have yet heard. The track is dedicated to Japanese friends of Maegraith’s, survivors of the 2011 tsunami that wrought such indescribable havoc across Japan. Switching to bass clarinet and using only the live resources of his band, Maegraith creates a vision of universal pain, wonder and depth. It is one of the most startlingly spiritual creations I have ever heard, Ligeti-like in its suspension of time and space.

We are snapped out of it with the propulsive snap groove of ‘Waiting’ – drummer Tim Firth putting the pots on and cooking all the way. Firth whips Maegraith along during his solo, recalling some of those mighty Coltrane/Elvin Jones codas that seemed ready to split reality right down the middle at any time. Intensity!

The final track ‘The Journey’ – all Maegraith’s track titles have a telling positive/seeking/spiritual resonance to them – is 10:36 of jazz funk reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s spacier moments (special mention to bassist Jonathan Zwartz who lays down the deep river that this tune floats on). ‘The Journey’ takes its time to rise to the sharp peak of Maegraith’s tenor solo. You couldn’t get a performance this juicy in a dulled studio – the decision to record ‘A Time, Times and Half a Time’ live in front of a more-than-appreciative audience was a wise one.

Published March 2012 on