16 September 2014

Cruising in dry dock

We’re here in Las Vegas. It’s a strange place. Not much in the way of jazz (despite a metro population of almost 2 million). We saw a show, Jersey Boys, and it was very well done and I enjoyed it with the songs and that falsetto and those harmonies despite a strangely disjointed script. (I’m told this is because the musical was developed from the recollections of each of the Four Seasons so moves through their points of view). I thought of Michael Azzopardi who was playing in the band for the show in Australia. You must have had fun, Michael. I found a page for the local jazz society and “jazz legend Gus Mancuso” was playing but the dates didn’t work for us. That would have been interesting: he played bop on a baritone horn (not bari sax) and had two LP releases in the mid-’50s and was promoted by Cal Tjader. Otherwise, we walked the glitz of Las Vegas and looked at blank faces and shorts’n’thongs and overdressed young girls. I expected there would be plenty of buskers (no, just beggars) and musos in bars (no, very few live musos but much piped dance music). Here are pics of a trio in Piazza San Marco (but without campanile or even a church frontage). I heard an Asian female gondolier singing quite beautifully. We were off to hear a Rat Pack tribute singer fronting a trio in another casino. The program was changed and we got piano man Dave instead. He was good but didn’t sing much of the “old stuff”. Maybe we didn’t tip enough: it’s not something we Australians understand. His field was Elton John / Billy Joel territory, although he extended to classic rock and Neil Diamond and John Denver and Georgia and Fly me to the moon as oldies. I really admire these guys with decent voice and piano and stage presence. His repertoire didn’t reach to Stella but it was large nonetheless and he entertained well. The best of Vegas for me was the helicopter ride out … to the Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon, landing half way down a canyon that’s virtually a kilometre deep. Difficult to comprehend, but the GC gets deeper than this. This is Nevada and it’s an arid place, surviving on the Hoover dam and they say that’s losing water. Our pollies deny all that, of course, and it will probably fill once or twice again before it’s finally parched, but I wouldn’t voluntarily choose that path. Las Vegas is not really so strange. It’s just corporate consumer capitalism at its apogee. Or like an oversized stranded cruise liner with mega cabins. It’s strange walking narrow footpaths over long distances in searing heat next to 8-lane highways then escaping into huge pomo-ironic spaces filled with gaming and brand-name shops and faux lux (knowing the real luxury is a few floors above). I’d just heard an author being interviewed on National Public Radio here and he spoke of his new book about a person stranded in Dubai (The dog / Joseph O’Neill), a place you could enjoy if you liked having maids and spending your time in swimming pools and shopping malls. It resonated with me, here, in Las Vegas.

15 September 2014


The Marsalis family are New Orleans sourced and I was lucky to catch Delfeayo on a Friday night at Snug Harbor. There’s nothing like seeing a big name international in a small club. He was playing a set dedicated to Miles Davis but not his fusion or later. As you’d expect, it was early era Miles, standards. They started with a very hard-swung take on Dizzy Gillespie’s Blue’n’boogie. Right from the early bars it was obvious that Phillie drummer Justin Faulkner was driving; no let-up here, so I was a bit surprised to find him playing so spare for some later tunes and with a wonderfully precise sense of time. Delfeayo played with such perfection, in intonation and phrasing, although it was only much later in the night that he moved away from neat and traditional tonal playing with a diminished sequence run following by a few bars of intriguing scale selections. His offsider, Khary Lee, was more adventurous in his soloing and the two formed a perfectly tight and harmonised little horn section. (In that vibe, Delfeayo had also led a big band in this club the previous Tuesday). Bassist David Pulphus was a lithe bassist with a stormingly rapid walk but I could only guess at this for the first tune. Like the time I heard brother Wynton M at Llewellyn years back, the bass was miked with no pickup. It gives a true sound, but this is no studio. I couldn’t hear him for the first louder tune, could hear him well for the quieter numbers, but then only just heard him for later blowing tunes. The sound man told me he’d fiddled with EQ but eventually had conflict with the drums being within a few feet. But my favourite player of the night was pianist Victor Atkins. Piano lends itself to the most complex of ideas and Victor played with more harmonic and conceptual complexity than the others: more modern and more to my ears. After the Diz bopper, the Miles tunes were Autumn leaves, Caravan and My funny valentine. These were long and varied and superbly together. I heard Autumn leaves with variously funny and intelligent playing, some staccato chords and additional passing chords from piano. Delfeayo laid down some impressive long interval sequences with a fat almost-breaking sound and plenty of vibrato. In Caravan, Delfeayo played a pitch-shifted melody that created dissonance with the alto and the band even dropped into rubato free jazz and I enjoyed a perfect spareness on drums. I was stunned by how they always know each others’ place in the tune and how they resolved together. Lesser mortals drop a pitch or place a note so as to confuse their fellow musos who then move the one: the notorious train-wreck. None of that here. I was also stunned by the ease and invention. We all play these tunes, but this was nothing like I’ve ever hinted at. I could only sit back in wonder. The Miles recordings are like this, of course, but to hear it done live is another thing. This is when their international quality hit me. Then the last part of the performance lightened up with obvious entertainment value. Young tenor player Miles von Berry (?) was invited up, Delfeayo made a few jibes at his expense and they played the Sesame Street theme (complete with singalong) and the Flintstones theme. Both were decent outings and the Flintstones was an out-and-out blow with swapped eights and some collective improv. The final few bars had the three horns marching off stage and up stairs to the loft where I was located. Then cheers and good cheer all round, and wait for the 10 pm set. This was some truly amazing playing with a mobile sense of togetherness that astounded me; mostly fairly tonal although thinking back there was free jazz, piano adventurousness and collective improv. Entertaining and seriously capable playing.

This was on Frenchmen Street with its multiple music bars. As I left, I heard a bass-alto duo playing next door and entered for a listen. I just caught a few tunes before they finished, but I enjoyed them immensely. It’s an open chord-free and drum-free sound and they both played with vibrancy and a sense of adventure and plenty of groove. Nice and contemporary. I heard two standards: My shining hour and What’s new. This was mobile bass that truly took an equal role, a bowed solo, and responsive playing from alto.

Also, more decent busking on Royal Street as I walked to Snug Harbor. Tanya & Dorise were playing Bach: fine (classical / baroque / other) music was quite unexpected on the streets. They were playing light pop / rock when I walked home after the gig.

Delfeayo Marsalis (trombone) led a quintet at Snug Harbor in Frenchmen Lane in New Orleans with Khary Lee (alto, soprano saxes), Victor Atkins (piano), David Pulphus (bass) and Justin Faulkner (drums). Mike van Berry (tenor) sat in for the last two tunes. Barry Stephenson (bass) played with Ricardo Pascal (alto) just around the corner. Tanya & Dorise were busking in Royal Street.

14 September 2014

Another day in NOLA

I usually fit in a few snippets of music and there’s lots of opportunity here in New Orleans. They say this is not a busy time – Americans come here for the warmth during their winter and the current tourists are reasonably contained by numbers and humidity – but there’s still a lot of music around on the streets of the French Quarter. I caught the One for All Brass Band with second line in the Louis Armstrong Park for a fair-cum-festival. They started with When the saints come marching in, and moved through funky grooves to Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon. The sousaphone was loud and insistent but nicely improvised, the snare was march-like, the two trombones and three trumpets developed into some decent solos on the march. I’ve learnt that the Second line is a set of revellers who appear after the “deposit” of the coffin to lead the “release”, a wake-like celebration of the deceased’s life. This was all well away from Bourbon Street and its sleaze. As an obvious visitor with a strange accent (often heard as English), I met a string of fine locals. These are people I could live with. But there was also a stroll along Bourbon Street again, intent on finding Preservation Hall. On the way, I caught the trombone trio of Dave Ruffner (vocals, trombone) with Mark Wayne (bass) and Bob Walters (drums) and got a chance to sit in (Almost like being in love, Alone together). I had a chat with bassist Dave. He has a background in orchestral bass but has been playing jazz in NOLA for several years. Oh, and one other thing. I heard a calliope on a paddle steamer: a simple steam-driven pipe organ. Very cute and quite loud

13 September 2014

Strolling Bourbon

Bourbon Street; famed way in New Orleans. There was jazz; Irvin Mayfield in an upmarket hotel jamming on Miles. It’s still a nightlife centre. Sleazy during the day, busy and throbbing at night: drinks, strip clubs, very noisy music. Classic rock, mainly, but some country and a touch of older style jazz. They were all tight and lively, although some were playing empty houses. All had a bucket for tips. It was still early. My favourite was a large band at Fat Cat doing Motown and the like with authentic, gospel infused vocals and the unlikely name Ka-nection. They were great but loud! These clubs have great sound: clear and very loud. Enter at your own risk.

12 September 2014

Walking New Orleans

I could have stayed on for the second set at Snug Harbor but I really wanted to explore the music on Frenchmen Street and through the French Quarter. I am told that Frenchman Street is the place for jazz, contemporary or otherwise. There are lots of other bars including interesting early bands, but no more contemporary jazz. But this is a lively street. Jenny Vee & the Windin’ Boys were playing on the steps of a closed bar with a few onlookers and a couple dancing. Meschiya Lake & the Little Big Boys were playing at the Spotted Cat Music Club. Both are early jazz styles with sousaphone basses. Both entertaining and capable bands. I noticed the Spotted Cat was a room with stage in one corner, bar in another and mostly open space. I was to find most bar here are open with much space for standing or dancing and just a few chairs or perhaps high tables around the side. Timber floors, dark interiors; good for active night life. I passed a string of other styles and club. New Soul at BMC had another innovation: no breaks. They just keep playing all night so people don’t leave. I arrived to the playing instrumental – Sissy funk, the band set up a groove on Fever with looped bass, the singer came up and the bass and guitar left the stage, to return after a long take with vocals and tenor and trombone solos. The singer quipped the drummer has a good bladder. Then on through backstreets seeing no more music but shop windows, statues, rains storm and the like.

11 September 2014

Roots and connections

We are in New Orleans and there’s a real sense of history, not least of jazz, and the tourism around it. We were out to dinner and jazz in Frenchmen Street. It’s just outside the French Quarter but it’s a renowned street for jazz and bars and the venue we went to, Snug Harbor, is known as a decent eatery and more contemporary jazz venue. The band this night was a piano trio led by drummer and they are playing each Tuesday for 5 weeks prior to a Blue Note stint and a tour to Japan. I imagine NOLA is in the thick of it, as they chatted of the loss of a local performer and recording with Chris Martin of Medeski Martin & Wood (just confirmed given Delfeayo Marsalis is playing at this venue the following night). The trio was led by Stanton Moore on drums, with James Singleton on bass and David Torkanowsky on piano. They started driving and punctuated with drum solo then a hard swing. There was a real sharpness and accuracy and a sense of history of the music. NOLA is drenched with historical jazz sounds (as I was to hear later in the night) and Preservation Hall and heavily-blues influenced pianos and it showed here. This was not so much complex or clever musically; it was sharp and correct and basically tuneful and scalar and harmonically easy. Not a lot of substitutions or complex polyrhythms, although there were some dissonant sequences later from piano. David sat pretty still but Stanton would writhe on this drum stool at times and James was tastefully fluent in his soloing if physically and facially contorted. It’s the jazz image, I guess, of commitment to the art. But I did like his solos: melodic, nice intonation, some extended country-like slap, loops under bowed solos. Committed but not so much urban contemporary. I put it down to being products of a long and strong local tradition. Stanton was somewhat the same: strong drumming laid straight and firm. David was a little different, sounding of McCoy Tyner fourths combined with long scalar runs, and just a dabble into dissonance later in the set. I’ve yet to see much NOLA music and I won’t do it this time around but I’m getting the feel of tradition and roots already. My walk home will just add to that.

Stanton Moore (drums) led his piano trio at Snug Harbor in New Orleans with James Singleton (bass) and David Torkanowsky (piano).

10 September 2014

A confusion of Eubanks

I heard Dave Holland once before and he was playing with a fabulous trombone player, Robin Eubanks, so when I saw Eubanks on the program I remembered him. But this was Robin’s guitarist brother Kevin Eubanks and the band was Prism and the music was immensely other. Prism was also having its first outing at this Chicago Jazz Festival. They comprise guitar, piano, bass, drums and they play jazz rock. Very, very different. Dave may have introduced the band as nominal leader but the sound clearly functions around guitarist Kevin. He’s brash and loud and driven and always on the edge of feedback and he uses it as a sound. He’s rocky or fusionesque or soundscapish rather than jazzy. The notes are not the thing; the effect is, and it’s an outlandish and extroverted and fun thing. The energy is high; the volume is high; the harmony is low. There was some of each these but this is essentially a music of grooves and rock-intensity. Dave played a few solos, and on double bass they were impressive outings but they could not help but be quieter and more jazzy. Drummer Eric Harland played a few solos and these seemed to be a bit strained as he searched for an authentic response to the urgent guitar, but this was the first gig for this band so they are presumably finding their feet. I hardly recall the role of Craig Taborn on Rhodes and piano as I write this a few days later although I do have notes for some decent solos. I could appreciate some of all this but I was underwhelmed. I thought of leaving early; too loud; too brash; too little change. I wondered if Kevin was faking it but I was wrong, of course. You can’t use jazz guitar chops as the model for this style. This was predominantly chromatic and strummed and sound effectish. Consonance or dissonance or even harmony were not the issue. Some left early but others took the opportunity to take their seats. The woman next to me, not alone, stood for ovations during the gig. I was underwhelmed although somewhat interested. Maybe it’s just that my rock days are behind me but this was very much ROCK[jazz] to my ears.

Prism were Dave Holland (bass), Kevin Eubanks (guitar), Craig Taborn (piano, Rhodes) and Eric Harland (drums). Prism premiered at the Chicago Jazz Festival.