Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Wellington Jazz Festival - Weekend Round Up


The Coffee Bar Kid spends the weekend at Wellington’s Jazz Festival and files his report.

Ghost Note – Friday 7 June / Code Quartet and Alicia Olatuja – Saturday 8 June / Simon O’Neil and Roger Fox – Sunday 9 June

Photo: Vanessa Rushton
Friday night kicked of the weekend with super-gusto.  USA outfit Ghost Note, founded by Snarky Puppy’s multi Grammy Award winning percussionists Robert ‘Sput’ Searight and Nate Werth, exploded onto the MFC stage supported by 5 of the most dynamic players I’ve seen.  Channelling Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown and Hip Hop kings like Run DMC and Public Enemy they blasted away at a fully danceable set of grooves and funk, notched up to ‘11’. 
The loud and rambunctious crowd lapped it up and threatened many times to burst out of their seats, getting up to get down.  And the band fed off this energy this energy, returning it in kind with a lively, groovy, and super tight jams. 

They began with two distinct pieces from debut Fortified, Jungle Boogie and Joshua Johnson.  Jungle Boogie gives Searight and Werth the opportunity to show off their percussion skills.  Searight, in particular, shows himself to be a clear and deft bandleader.  With his kit set up at the front of the stage, he calls, shouts and commands, hosts and converses with the audience,  From his drum stool he’s conducting his band and bringing various soloists with a challenge “Show Us whatcha got!”   
Most of the set is dedicated to the new album, Swagism, starting with the title cut.  Their interpretations of the vinyl versions are pretty true, minus the spoken word portion, but live they have so much more power. 

Photo - Vanessa Rushton
Throughout the gig they show a good balance between lyrics and freestyle. Their notes and runs were clear and articulate; the drum hits defined. There were show stopping riffs, catchy hooks, and head turning Latin beats got many people to start dancing again. They expertly executed use of free form solos which enhanced the performance rather than taking away from it, which can be a risk with jazz music.

Holding every groove together, the man himself, Dwayne “MonoNeon” Thomas, Prince’s former bassist, pounds out endlessly funky, deft, extra tight riffs, that are well deep.  This man oozes cool, even dressed in an orange jump suit and matching hat.  He doesn’t take himself too seriously, having a dangling stripped sock draped over his bass head, for further effect.

The mighty and tall Sylvester Onyejiaka, who’s also jammed with Prince and my personal favourites, Quantic, shows off his baritone sax and flutes teaming up with “the little man with the big horn”, Johnathan Mones (horns and flute).  They totally shine on the Swagism and ballsy, brassy Smack ‘em.
I loved the energy and antics of Dominique Xavier Taplin (Toto, Prince) and Vaughn Henry who flashed about behind their bunker of keyboards, synths and other techno-toys.  Both had huge grins throughout the gig as they broke in and out of numbers like Dry Rub and Funk You Muthafunka , with space age twiddles, Herbie Hancock styled 80’s syntho-riffs and mega piano vibrancies. 

In complete contrast was the guitar work of the tall, and svelte Peter Knudsen.  Dressed all in denim, he looked like a member of Calexico, not an urban funk band, but his playing was pure JB.  His riffs could definitely rival Jimmy Nolan’s.  Especially on Milkshake, one of Swagism’s biggest hits.

Instrumentally, this band was very interesting.  Having two drummers, Searight holds the groove and steers the wheel, while Werth does his best to colour every beat with toms, cymbals, tambourines and other counter beats.  They sounded almost as if there was only one drummer, but fuller.  A testament to how tight their sound was.  

By the last quarter the audience are up on their feet and clapping along like there’s no tomorrow.  The encore Funk You Mother Funker includes a swathe of James Brown soundbites which juxtapose the riffs, and there are intended pauses for effect, stop-started the grooves  and hightenting each drop until the funk can’t wait any longer.  The party was just getting started when the 90 minute call comes, so my only disappointment was that this show was just too short.  The funk never ends.

Photo: Vanessa Rushton
On Saturday afternoon I caught a one-off performance by CODE Quartet (Journeys in Sound: New music from Aotearoa and the world).  Former Wellingtonian and Tui award winner Lex French, now a Montreal resident, had brought back a group of friends to play a selection of their work and two new compositions.  The latter, Moorings (Titahi Bay) and Transience, were written by Jasmine Lovell-Smith and Lex French as special commissions from the Jazz Festival. 

CODE Quartet, which includes French, is a powerhouse collective, strongly rooted in the jazz tradition, the chord-less quartet who also feature saxophonist Christine Jensen, , bassist Adrian Vedady and drummer Jim Doxas.

Together, they create a soundscape that is diverse and refined, providing an exciting and engaging listening experience.
Their set began with one of French’s pieces, heavily influenced by artist Gordon Walters and Coleman’s obsession with anthropology. Called Genealogy, the work sounded like an extrapolation of the standard Dancing Cheek to Cheek, although it veered off course into dangerously ‘arty’ waters several times and became confusing to listen to.

The first commission, Moorings, is a celebration of the rough Wellington foreshore, with metaphors about coming home from travelling, safe harbours and the concept of ‘home’.  You can hear sounds of the breaking waves in the deeper alto sax notes Jensen plays, and the squeaks from French’s trumpet perfectly mimic seagulls soaring high across the windy, turbulent skies created by drummer Jim Doxas and bassist Adrian Vedady. 

Doxas contributes his own beach themed piece called Rosemark Beach, a location in Scotland, with hints of bagpipes and windswept dunes, created by his brush work on the snares.
Vedady gives us Watching it All Slip Away, informed by his Canadian home location near an airport.  It’s a cool and brooding ensemble track, with an open end for his bass fret work, which his attacks with a slow deep slapping sensation. 

The second commission is Transience, a response to Moorings, and opposite.  While the first was about finding a place to stay, this one is lively and searching.  It’s opens with toots like car horns in heavy New York traffic.  Perhaps the traveler is late to the airport.  Perhaps the rolling bass is a jet plane taking off.  Perhaps the sax is the confusion of a new city.  It’s all open to translation, and you can easily get lost in it.

French, who hosted the show, told us about his own dark and further brooding dedication to a James K Baxter poem (On The Death Of Her Body).  He’d stolen the first line for his own title – My love, in the world's first summer stood.  With a dirge of horns and constricting trumpets, it felt claustrophobic and very dark.

The closing number from this lively and varied set came from sax play Christine Jensen.  Wind Up drew its references from sailing but could just as easily be a nod to Wellington’s harbour as well, being breezy and quick paced, with plenty of room for Jensen to blow some fabulous scales and arpeggios.   
Sometimes modern jazz can be confronting, other times just boring.  I was grateful for the variety, and certainly appreciated the skill of these players.  In small doses this was enjoyable and educational. Like a delicacy, it whetted the appetite for more but you always know when you’ve had enough.

Photo: Alicia Rushton
Alicia Olatuja played on Saturday night.  What an absolute star this lady is!  A magnificent voice, that ranges through several octaves.  a full-bodied tone, precise pitch and personal engagement at the lowest whisper or highest wail.
Praised by the New York Times as ‘a singer with a strong and luscious tone and an amiably regal presence on stage’, she totally blew us away tonight.  Her exquisite vocals, artistic versatility and humble, yet captivating demeanor.

A grad of the Manhattan school of Music, she first gained international attention as the featured soloist with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.
The majority of her repertoire came from her critically-acclaimed album Intuition: Songs from the Minds of Women, which, in her words “celebrates the achievements of esteemed female composers”. She opens with the almost Broadway-ish So Good, So Right (to be with you tonight) by Brenda Russell.  After a couple of tunes from her previous album, Timeless, she did Joni Mitchell’s Cherokee Louise, about a girl running away from sexual abuse by her step dad.  It’s an unusual choice for a mainstream styled jazz singer.  Normally you’d expect stuff like My Funny Valentine to be in her set.  But, as she told us, you have to confront uncomfortable themes and feelings sometimes.  Her treatment of Mitchell’s lesser known work was exceptionally delicate and careful, portraying the mind of a friend who supports buddy, who’s hiding under a bridge.  Her phrasing is immaculate, yet not the sterile perfection you usually get from a trained singer.  She herself is a singing teacher but she displays more than just skill, there’s also some emotion that hints that she may just know more than a little about her subject matter.

Her sexy, sultry No Ordinary Love (a Sade song), is so delicious it eclipses the original.  How she holds control of those notes and shapes them in to velvety, aural fibres is so impressive. 
She does a very Latin, sexy take on Mercedes Sosa’s Gracias a la Vida, in perfect Portuguese, with some magical scatterings. Joan Baez also does a wonderful version, but with a more folky feel.  There’s a number unaccredited, except to a student of hers, that’s slow, measured and so perfectly balanced.  Hide and Seek is about that little girl that’s always told that you are not enough.  Too black, too fat, to this too that.  Just wait… All those conflicting messages.  It’s sung from the girls perspective and is another strong message in a bottle of lush, rich jazz yet thought provoking and cool.  Done as the encore, with just a guitar accompaniment it’s the perfect closer.    
For Hide and Seek she gets everyone snapping their fingers like the sound of falling rain.  Later she’ll have us clapping and singing back.  That’s her tabernacle upbringing coming through.   
In her set she also gives us lesser known writers like Brenda Russell, and R’N’B artist Angela Bofill (Under The Moon), and Linda Creed (People Make The World Go Round – one of my favorites from the album). 

Photo: Alicia Rushton
Her band – which includes the sublime Robert Mitchell piano, – were tight and clever but never overcrowded her, they gave plenty of room for her voice and style to shine.  Only at the enduring the wind up did they take full force – on an extended and rocking blues version of Tracy Chapman’s Give Me One Reason.  A very vulnerable take on Transform, about how the artist pours out their heart on stage, was just wonderful. 

Olatuja’s voice went from high to low tones with such ease, I found myself smiling and humming along, it was one of those performances where it proved so difficult to sit still!

Simon O’Neill with Roger Fox Big Band - Fox continues to defy musical boundaries.  He’s worked with Michael Houston and Midge Marsden.  This year he takes on Opera.  The story goes that he was in a bar with Tenor Simon O’Neill when he had one too many whiskeys and ended up playing O’Neil’s wedding with his whole touring band!  That led to a bit of a favour.  So O’Neil jumped ‘7 Planes from Berlin’ to be on stage today.  His voice is stunning.  No matter what you think of opera, it blows you away.  The  collaboration premiered new arrangements of Wagner’s Die Walküre and Notung! Notung! and Puccini’s Nessun Dorma, ground-breaking stuff and a really interesting concept.  I’m not sure jazz and Wagner always works  Wintersong, Sigmund’s Love Song, didn’t exactly work with the slowly delivered vocals not quiet merging in time and beat of the band.  But overall, an interesting idea.  No doubt this concert kept the greyer haired audience members happy.  And to see O’Neill back in Wellington was a joy in itself.  Simon O’Neill’s illustrious career spans the great operas and opera houses of Europe and the United States as well as Australia and New Zealand, so that was some feat!

The Rodger Fox Big Band also premiered some wonderful new material including the very Mancini-like Stretchin’ with Gretchen (by sax player Oscar Lavern) and a piece by departing drummer Lauren Ellis who is off to study at the acclaimed Lauren Ellis (Weather Report) School of Music in the USA.

The Wellington Jazz Festival goes way beyond the performances I saw.  On Saturday and Sunday there were 90 gigs alone around the city.  It’s a place where everything buzzes, even if Jazz isn’t your bag. 

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