29 September 2011


I have a history of missing bassist Tamara Murphy so I’m relieved to have finally caught her but it was a close thing. Tamara was here again with the Fran Swinn Trio at Hippo on a tour to launch their new CD. Even this time I only managed to get there for their final set after another engagement. I’d missed this trio with a circus act a few months before and Tamara a string of times in the past. Then when I was recently at the David Gage bass shop in NYC, I mentioned Australia and they volunteered Tamara Murphy, which impressed me. So finally I catch up.

This trio plays an impressionistic music of varied times and angular melodies and with that indefinite pitch that I hear in some modern jazz guitar. The underlying harmonies often sound of limited chords and the bass is more riffish than chordal. Fran’s guitar solos break from this with modern substitutions, a general freedom of harmony and sequences that move over symmetrical changes and into and out of dissonance using a sharp, trebly tone with echo effects and finger picking along with plectrum. I thought of Scofield and Fran mentioned Metheny and Frisell. Tamara took frequent solos which were more consonant and with a lovely sense of intervallic melody, although I did wonder at the exotic scales she was playing (this was not obvious major tonality). These were clearly double-bass solos of intellect and movement and with a fair touch of speed and with a unusual double-speed note pairs out of little two-finger fills. Tamara was playing on a borrowed gut-strung bass. I‘m not sure of her normal instrument and its stringing, but it would be interesting to see what changes this different bass has wrought in her playing. Ben’s drumming initially seemed sparse and truncated and soft (question my feminist credentials, but for the first solo I thought of a local lack of testosterone) but that was just the first solo I heard. Later, there were solos of volume and rolls and busy-ness, and these solos were frequent and surprisingly short (which I felt that suited the band) and of a modern approach that felt to me like storytelling.

The tunes were presumably originals, although I thought Fran said we’d recognise the last tune of the night (I didn’t). I counted 7s and a 5/4 ballad and had difficulty counting some others so I guessed odd counts like 13s or 15s. The melodies were jagged and unexpected to my ear, but attractive too. The form was mostly standard head-solos-head, but there was variation, and the solos were not particularly different from the head in structure or conception, so there was a consistency within and between tunes which seems to me a mark of impressionism. It all makes for an interesting palette and a desire on my part to revisit people like Metheny and Meldau and their impressionistic ilk.

Fran Swinn (guitar) led a trio with Tamara Murphy (bass) and Ben Hendry (drums).

20 September 2011

Doc Webster reminisces

Bill ”Doc” Webster was a find. He leads a band that he calls Jazz Nostalgia but it deserves weightier significance. Doc gives us authentic jazz history: from talking through the lyrics and their meanings and from stories around the songwriters and original performers. So when he plays the tunes they take on this extra weightiness and purpose amidst their joyous and entertaining performance. For Doc has a decent voice that he uses very well with his nicely warbling vibratos that end the lines and the gravelly Louis voice that he toys with and the nicely stretched high notes that he reaches with a pleasant strain, all matching with a tenor sax that he wields with a bluesy authority.

This night we heard of Louis Jordan and Saturday Night Fish Fries and raids by cops. Also Fats Waller and the link between music publication and the song What did I do to be so black and blue and the reason why If you’re a viper is so funny. Then on to crooners and Nat King Cole and Brian Eckstein and My foolish heart and Ray Charles and I got a woman out of the Negro spiritual, There’s a man going ‘round, countin’ names. Then Cole Porter and Anything goes and Route 66 and even Girl from Ipanema in a strange change from black American music.

This was all of an education, a humour routine and some nicely laid back music and singing. A great night and a memorable experience. Memorable also because I got to sit in, so my first West Coast performance, playing What’s new in Eb. Thanks to Doc for the offer and to bassist Leslie for the bass loan. And cheers to Sarah who I chatted to for the night. Bill ‘Doc’ Webster (voice, tenor) led Jazz Nostalgia with Vaughan Johnson (piano), Leslie Thorne (bass) and Doug Kassell (drums) at a very busy Les Joulins Jazz Bistro, San Francisco.

19 September 2011


It was a sunny day and we were at San Francisco’s Farmers’ Market which is held three days a week at the Ferry building. This is both terribly touristy and very local. It was madly busy, with tons of stalls, some truly excellent food stock and unusual varieties, a mélange of people, some great views (Alcatraz, Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate just around the corner) and buskers.

Don Cunningham is a veteran clarinetist with a generous repertoire, a long history of playing since the ‘40s, a fine presentation, a frequent smile and an admirably witty turn of phrase. These were joyous standards performed with mirth and joy for a bright sunny day.

Teodross Avery was a recent returnee to his homeplace in the West after 15 years in NYC. This was a very different presence. Cool and capable soprano sax playing over accompaniment tapes for lithe popular tunes like Sade and Sting.

Billy Philadelphia was actually playing at a restaurant at 1 Market Street, just across the road. Billy Philly is a piano man with that theatre-cum-standards repertoire, but also with a big link to Australian culture: he’d backed Dame Edna Everidge on gig here in San Fran for 5-months in 1999. What don’t we have in common? I’ve caught gladioli! We loved the tunes, were surprised to discover the similarity of Peter Allen’s I still call Australia home and New York state of mind (I prefer the latter), but we were taken when he played The Beatles’ Here, there and everywhere. We are suckers for the Beatles, and this is a richly sentimental and superbly written little tune that is a relatively seldom played. And what’s a piano man for if not for sentiment?


I was excited to see that Cedar Walton was in town while we were there, playing a four night stand with his trio at the Jazz Showcase. The Jazz Showcase is another of those fabulous venues with posters for the greats over many years back to the early ‘50s, although it’s now in a new location. The current location is big and dark with a big stage, a Steinway, and a decent PA, so very presentable, although I didn’t manage to break through the jazz-cool here.

Cedar was a frequent pianist in records I heard in the ‘70s so a must see and he was just as I expected. Heavily bluesy, hard swinging, but with an easy dissonance that none-the-less remains in the main stream. This was sturdy and solid but easily expressive playing, with an intriguing selection of standards and presumably originals and with clever arrangements. Either they are well rehearsed or frequently gigged, but this band played taut arrangements, hits, starts, stops, dynamics with relaxed ease and ever-present energy and hard swing. The audience was small and I felt the first set was the better with the bigger attendance. They played two medleys, by Billy Strayhorn and Monk, a string of originals, Stevie Wonder and JJ Johnson’s beautiful Lament. Luscious ballads, frequent changes from 2 to four to latins to walks, and lots of sharp soloing, including from east coast bassist David Williams and Chicago drummer George Fludas. A very enjoyable night of capable hard swing and nifty arranging. Cedar Walton (piano) played with David Williams (bass) and George Fludas (drums) at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago.

Chicago locals

Chicago was an unexpected change of plans, but the jazz community is small and fairly easy to find so I caught two local bans: the Harold Washington College Faculty band and Mike Smith Quartet. Both were playing at Andy’s, one of a few nightly jazz clubs in Chicago, and obviously one that’s well known. As is the way in these parts, there are photos and posters on the wall of famous names who’ve played there. And they are the most famous.

The Harold Washington College Faculty Band played standards with the intelligent and developed skills that are evident in such trained players. The tunes were the old favourites: Stella, What is this thing called love, Anthropology, In your own sweet way, Triste and the like. All played with considerable subtlety and inventiveness. I particularly enjoyed Wayne’s Shorter’s Fee Fi Fo Fum given it’s such a different tune from the others. I also particularly enjoyed Matt Shevitz’s tenor for his smooth and purposeful playing including when he dropped into very lengthy passages of 16th notes. Scott Hesse dropped rich implications with his chordal accompaniment and soloed clean and fast although I didn’t feel with the melodic clarity of Matt. But guitar is like that. Bassist Cory Biggerstaff and drummer Todd Howell were steady and strong; Cory was nicely tuneful and unforced in soloing, and I thought Todd was unusually flowing in style. And I noticed lots of ending vamps. The Harold Washington Collect Faculty Band comprised Matt Shevitz (tenor), Scott Hesse (guitar), Cory Biggerstaff (bass) and Todd Howell (drums).

Mike Smith played the later sets and this was a very different conception. He was still playing standards, although a more a adventurous selection with a bop cum hard-bop theme. This was hotter, bluesier, dirtier, more overtly energetic if less inventive and an enticing presentation with good audience communication. These are a regular working band featuring a fluent alto with a jazz-cool presence out front of a steady professional rhythm section. Not so much challenging as bluesily correct. For blues, write hard-bop of Lee Morgan and Tadd Dameron as well as the standards and rhythm changes. Mike Smith (alto) led a quartet with Jordan Baskin (piano), Jake Vinsell (bass) and Brian Ritter (drums).

I shouldn’t forget street musician Ron Shelton who I met on the way to Andy’s that night. He’s been playing on the streets for seven years with his hardy Selmer Mk VII. Nice bloke, too. Nice to meet you, Ron.


We also have a great love of museums and this trip was an opportunity to visit a few of the world’s great collections. Nothing was much planned and there was limited time and some museums unexpectedly disappointed while others were stunning bliss to walk through. In Washington DC, I was bowled over by the National Gallery of Art and the Air and Space Museum and I loved the quirky little Folger Shakespeare Library with its world’s largest collection of First folios (4 on display on the day). The National had very good collections of mediaeval/enlightenment European paintings and modern portraiture. In the foyer alone of the Air and Space museum were John Glenn’s Mercury capsule, the Gemini capsule used for the first space walk, the Apollo 11 command module, the first private spacecraft, Goddard’s pioneering rocketry and much more. And you touch a bit of moon rock. Stunning. You can touch Mars rock in the Natural History Museum. I was disappointed by the American History Museum and the American Indian Museum was an unusual offering that was enlightening through a unique approach.

NYC was just MOMA and the Met, although there was so much more. MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) was stunning, of course, with famed pieces around each corner, sculptures that seem to recur (how often have I seen one or more burghers of Calais?) and a fascinating temporary exhibit on interfaces and design. The Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) was just a day lost in bliss. Incredible collections that were as much archeological as artistic. It means nothing to say I was stunned by the Egyptian, Roman, Greek and Mediaeval collections. The American collections, the Art Deco, the Middle East were less known to me but wonderful. A feature are the many rooms that have been purchased and rebuilt here: two from Pompeii, from Florence and Gubbio, Frank Lloyd Wright, many others, and a whole Egyptian temple that was saved from the Aswan Dam and gifted to the US. We spent ~8 hours and just touched the surface of this superbly presented and incredibly rich collection.

We were lucky to catch a string quartet playing at a cafe in the Met. It was led by Beryl Diamond Chacon (violin) with Nelson Palgett (piano), Regis Iandiorio (violin) and Makisol Espada (cello). We heard the first set of waltzes and pleasantries, although there were some less common pieces there: J Strauss but also Friml and DeLibes. Beryl was offering more substantial music later but the collections called. These were capable players. Beryl spoke lightly of studying at Julliard years before, and her offsiders were no slouches. Lovely music in a stunning environment.

And the architecture is another beauty. Just one pic of two favourite buildings in NYC: the American Radiator Building and the canonical Empire State Building.

This is CJBlog post no. 700.

18 September 2011

Katie Noonan does string theory

Text by Brenton Holmes

Only Katie Noonan could deliver as first course to her full-house audience an earnest young string quartet playing edgy modern art music. But it worked beautifully. The Sydney Symphony Fellowship Quartet (Freya Franzen and Monique Irik –violins; Tara Houghton –viola; Adam Szabo-cello) set the space vibrating with two of the Three Idylls (1906) by Frank Bridge before launching into String Quartet No.4 (2003) by the Latvian composer and eco-warrior Peteris Vasks. Written for the famed Kronos Quartet, the SSFSQ delivered a similar punch in a work that blended Stravinsky’s rhythmic grunt with the ferocious tonalities of Shostakovich’s late quartets.

One minor gripe. The individual instruments were fitted with the wonderful DPA clip-on condenser mics, but with the volume pumped up each instrument seemed hyper-exposed, and we lost the more blended quality that gives a string quartet its trademark unified voice.

The main event showcased Elixir’s new album First Seed Ripening, most of which comprises settings of poems by the Australian poet Tom Shapcott. The songs had been conjured into existence in the unhurried atmosphere of Arthur Boyd’s artists’ retreat Bundanon. The album uses strings to fine effect. The lyricism of Magnusson’s guitar and Hurren’s sax is the sweet, warm solder that fuses the elements together.

Katie opened the Canberra concert with the title track First Seed Ripening. Guitar and voice strolled in, Hurren prodded gently and the quartet glowed behind them. Noonan fluttered and glided around Magnusson’s simply plucked lines. Hurren slipped in a mellow solo before Magnusson joined him in what was reminiscent of a Golla and Burrows outing. The aperitif went down well.

My Skin is a Glove came next, with arranger Steve Newcombe giving the cello a hauntingly beautiful opening, the full quartet nestling in behind a tender-voiced Noonan, with a nicely understated guitar from Magnusson. The end hovered. The audience paused, rapt.

Katie then invited us to imagine tropical semi-nudity and other delights as she introduced another Tom Shapcott work, Stuff of Myths Magnusson had fun with his digitally-enhanced guitar intro before settling into a jaunty Airto Moreira feel. Noonan splashed happily in the shallows. Husband Zac’s sax joined her for some playful parallel precision work and we all came away suitably tanned.

Next came Pierrot, a Melbourne-tinged tribute to the sad clown, with an especially fine interplay between all the instruments, Magnusson’s plucking hinting at Ry Cooder. Noonan’s remarkable vocal abilities serve her well on songs like this. It is an instrument over which she exercises exquisitely subtle control.

Sleep Soundly, Peacefully was the song Katie and Zac wrote together as they anticipated parenthood for the first time. Magnusson’s intro drew the song perfectly into its lullaby mode. The room became a poetry reading. Katie Noonan can pluck a high note from anywhere and let it hang, only to lay it down gently as she would her baby’s head.

Time to switch to Radiohead In Limbo, and Elixir gave it a suitably FX treatment, looping Katie’s voice and Steve’s guitar. There was a touch of coloratura in the Noonan stratosphere, the crowd whooped its pleasure, and a clapping patron with glowing forearms caught some onstage attention.

Shapcott again manifested slightly tropical in Elixir’s efforts with Last Night’s Comfort. The jaunty Caribbean feel returned. Katie and Steve delivered some delicious duets.

Next came Tip of Memory from Elixir’s self-titled 2003 album. Essentially a waltz, and here in an arrangement by Paul Grabowsky, it was one of the evening’s highlights. Think of George Martin’s effort on Eleanor Rigby and you’ll catch the quality of Grabowsky’s work. The cello lines gave Adam Szabo a chance to shine.

Noonan made Joni Mitchell’s My Old Man her very own. Saying cheekily that she “doesn’t do covers … I prefer to think of them as tributes”, Katie delivered a tribute that Joni would have been proud of.

Three fine songs rounded out the concert. Hemispheres had the string quartet open à la Appalachian Spring, slipping neatly into Magnusson’s guitar; Nocturne satisfied in every respect; and Snapshot gave Katie Noonan the chance to remind us of just how remarkable the voice is that a jammed-packed audience had flocked to hear at the Street Theatre.

The blessing that is Elixir will be visited upon audiences around the country through September and October: Melbourne 17 September; Mullumbimby 23 September; Adelaide 7 October; Perth 8&9 October; Hobart 13 October; Launceston 14 October.

Last night

It was my last night in NYC and there were too many choices. I chose Henry Threadgill giving a workshop at the Jazz Gallery. The session went for 3 hours, more lecture than conversation. I think this is a fair summary of his argument (note that it mainly concerned composition). You need more “information” (meaning, learn everything you can including all musical styles; otherwise meaning relationships between notes, chords, rhythms of what you are writing). Move things around to make more information (eg, stack or invert information). When composing, write one or two lines and keep writing. Get the choreography right (eg, piano fingering, drum movements). Composition is about organization: it has to go somewhere and be “cognisant” (sic). Current jazz education is poor: you can be given lots of theory but not know what to do with it; many technicians sound the same. Keep developing (getting more information). Music can be art or entertainment but they don’t mix. Art is demanding to experience and a demanding lifestyle. Do things without thinking too much, but stop and investigate any problems in detail. He’s obviously a committed musician with worthy concerns and some real capability in composition but I was disappointed that the session didn’t seem to click for me. It was too metaphorical for my literal and rationalist mindset, I guess. I expect it would have interested me more with some practical work to consider and/or some more precise questions from the audience. I was fascinated to hear him on piano before and for a time during the session. You could virtually hear his creation process as he explored sounds of passages and relationships. I didn’t want to interrupt the session, so no pics in deference to Henry and others.

More jammin’

I saw a description of Smalls as a great and involving club, but one that you can’t make a living playing at. I doubt it’s an MBA-grade business model but it’s got a great community with jams that trail into the night. I certainly didn’t outlast this one. There are some decent players visiting, some very good. I met Sagit Zilberman who’s an alto saxist and graduate of Berklee, but there are tons of others hanging out for a jam at Smalls and a number of other local bars. You can see the anticipation on their faces. Nerve-wracking but great fun. Here are some pics, although mostly without names.

An embarrassment of riches

Jazz is everywhere around me here. A large part is being in Greenwich Village; some part is in the time of year, the nice weather and the holidays and even the 9/11 commemorations. Here are some snippets of other bands I’ve come across.

Ehud Asherie led a trio at Smalls late one night. This was a standards outing of old school friends who never did actually form that band. Nightingale in Berkeley Square and tunes by Sinatra, Gershwin and Dizzy. I found Ehud’s piano choppy and well behind the beat and his rhythm section mates easy and steady. Bassist Neal Miner plays weekly with Annie Ross here in Manhattan, but that was just another one I didn’t get to. Ehud Asherie (piano) played with Neal Miner (bass) and Jason Brown (drums) at Smalls.

Josh Evans led a quartet that was the host band for a jam late one night at Smalls. I was particularly taken to hear the lovely Goodbye by Gordon Jenkins which I know it from Charlie Haden’s Quartet West (given some prompting). Also blues and originals and a Walter Booker hard-bop tune. Josh had a clear influence from Miles. I found Rick Germanson’s piano very inventive and very easily dissonant and Tyler Mitchell’s bass very ready to enter long pedals. Nice band. Josh Evans (trumpet) led a quartet with Rick Germanson (piano), Tyler Mitchell (bass) and Jerome Jennings (drums).

We were staying at West 4th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. It’s a lively and noisy street and has turned out to be incredibly central to lots of jazz. Taking different corners on Seventh Ave in recent days, I’ve discovered another three jazz venues. One was the Garage. It’s more restaurant than jazz club, but the Lou Caputo Quartet playing standards for a tourist crowd. We caught them in the first set, and perhaps too early in the day. They were livening up nicely in the second set, but we had to go. I was interested that a name from my old jazz record collection was playing, Calvin Hill, who’s played with Max Roach, McCoy Tyner and Pharaoh Sanders amongst many others. Another hugely solid bassist with firm hands and easy presence. Lou Caputo (flute, clarinet, saxes) played with Don Stein (piano), Calvin Hill (bass) and Randy Petschauer (drums) at The Garage.

16 September 2011

Commemorating 9/11 Pt.1

It was fortuitous, not planned, that we were in NYC for the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and it was an interesting place to be. The day itself was sunny, touristy near the site, and not particularly sombre. There were cops everywhere following a vague report of possible terrorism which didn’t come to be, but it was a truly impressive presence. And there were a series of events over the week before 9/11 that seemed the heartfelt memorials.

We attended a superb choral concert at the church of St John the Apostle on the day before 9/11. The church itself was not pretty for me, at least after visiting so many mediaeval European churches, but the sound was cathedral-like and the performers were most impressive. The combined choirs started with Song for Athene by John Tavener. This was a single drone organ note with text from Shakespeare and used in the Orthodox funeral service. It started as male chant, rose to a mixed choir with volume and power, then finished with the chant again. Very powerful, and later repeated as an encore. Then six songs by the Empire City Men’s Chorus, varying in style from traditional blues through a composed version of a letter home by a now dead US soldier from Iraq (touching to read but the text didn’t lend itself to music as did Shakespeare or Tennyson) to standard poetry put to classical song. The major work of the concert was Paul Leavitt’s Requiem performed by the NYC Master Chorale with five solo voices. PL wrote the piece in 2009 after the death of his own partner. Read more about it at the link below.

We lucked out on the afternoon of Sunday 9/11 when we passed Grace Church, an old Epicopalian (essentially Anglican high church for post-revolution Americans) church in Greenwich Village with a renowned history. They were performing Faure’s requiem. We only caught part and it was not performed with the expertise of the NYC Master chorale, but it was beautiful with many high children’s voices in a sympathetic space.

  • Program notes for the Paul Leavitt Requiem
  • Commemorating 9/11 Pt.2

    Continuing our religious theme, we attended a jazz mass at St John’s evangelical Lutheran Church in Christopher Street, just a block from our apartment. I remember some pretty tame rock masses from my childhood, but this was far more interesting. The band was skilled, the conception was good and the music was varied and informed. I heard Freddie Hubbard-like ’70s modal, some great funk, a Love Supreme groove, Amazing grace behind the gospel reading, Body & soul behind a memorial reading for the fallen on 9/11. This was seriously satisfying music and there was a surprise that followed. We’d left fairly quickly. We had a dinner booked, the mass had run on a bit, and I was saving Megan from another of my chatter sessions with musos. Then I got an email the next day from Andrew Swift. He’d been the drummer and had played this gig for a year. I’d missed him after the mass. Another small world experience and one I can live off for some time. So now I have the names of the band. The band’s musical director was Sharel Cassity, a very decent female alto saxist who doubles on flute. Apparently Andrew plays in her regular working band. The rest of the band were pianist Roy Assaf, singer Melanie Charles and bassist Spencer Murphy who works at Smalls some days. A flugelhorn sat in for the harmony lines on the final funky number. Europe may have its authentic church music traditions, but this is America’s. And a great sermon on forgiveness by Dr John J Scibilla which impressed our godless souls.

    Finally, there were numerous small activities around NYC for the 9/11 anniversary: postcards, tiles, ribbons, displays, fire brigade reunions, but perhaps the most available was the Tribute in light which ran only overnight from evening Sunday 11 Sept to morning Monday 12 Sept. This comprises two beams that mimic the shape and orientation of the missing towers, and powered by 44 7Kwatt bulbs. This year’s low clouds left an eerie impression of smoke escaping the towers, as in the original pics. A nice gesture.

    A cultural jumble

    I loved the Fat Cat as a venue, doubly so because I heard a lovely and talented string quartet playing to a noisy audience that was engaged in drinking and chatting and playing chess and table tennis and pool. We found a moderately comfy sofa near the musos, got some drinks and enjoyed Haydn (Divertimento in C) and Mozart (Suite in D). It’s all so, so far from the concert hall and the purity of the listener. But we imagined the musicians of centuries back would have played this dignified and courtly music to their own bars, or at least to their equivalent of cocktail parties. There was a ton of noise, but there was also a very committed sound man who got an effective sound for the quartet that made it perfectly intelligible without being intrusive, and we could laugh and chat and listen to music of delightful beauty. I believe a smile goes a long way when travelling. This is like a parallel. It’s not casting pearls before swine. Rather, this is getting on the wavelength of another cultural group and exposing great beauty. This audience gets it like most others and the quartet enjoys it. After all, they had been playing this venue every Monday evening for several years. Fat Cat is not just a noisy venue for fine music. It mostly programs jazz and late night jam sessions with many of the artist who perform at Smalls. The diminutive cover charge is the best $3 I’ve spent in NYC. We loved it. Thanks to the lovely string quartet comprising Choi Fairbanks (cello, leader), Jia Xu (a very expert violin 1), Jesse Montgomery (violin 2) and Nick Ravel (viola).

    13 September 2011

    A testing outing

    My night at the Crosscurrent Festival with Dave Burrell and Matana Roberts’ Coin Coin was clearly the most challenging outing of my time in NYC. There’s a lot to like about this. The Crosscurrent International Contemporary Jazz Festival is a three-day event that involves visits from Italy, although I’m not sure who travelled or how the theme was created. I do know it’s an Italian connection and it’s in its third year. The venue was excellent: Le Poisson Rouge. It’s got great lighting and sound and it’s a comfortable space with a generous stage. But it’s especially interesting because it stages various arts: theatre, dance, jazz, rock, experimental music and more. Also interesting were the bands, of course. I can struggle with experimental music, but it can also be wonderfully involving and satisfying when you close your eyes and take it for the sound that it is.

    Dave Burrell played the first set. This was a standard piano trio in format and at the start of each tune, you may have thought they would play pretty standard-style. The tunes started with a fairly simple and lyrical melodies, but they developed into atonal, often cacophonous, improvs by whoever took a solo. Then a sudden stop: there was no out head. These were capable musicians and you could clearly see the skills. I remained flummoxed by the style but that’s my problem not theirs. I liked this well enough but I wasn’t quite convinced. BTW, this was Dave Burrell’s 71st birthday special project. Dave Burrell (piano) played with Michael Formanek (bass) and Steve Swell (trombone).

    Indicative of this venue’s variety of programming we had a poet between bands and given this is NYC this was a famed poet. Amiri Baraka (prev. LeRoi Jones) read a lengthy poem on jazz performance. I loved hearing the rhymes as they flittered through the piece and the images of jazz performers which I felt he got so right. This was very much enjoyed, even if I didn’t catch all the subtleties.

    Matana Roberts led her sextet Coin Coin in the final, and my favourite, performance of the night. Matana is a capable alto saxist but is perhaps better known for her composition and better known in Europe than in her home country. She described this as a “chance strategy piece” and later named it as a mixtape. I presume the chance strategy is the compositional approach for this piece. This was a performance of a recent CD but altered in approach, with videos and headphones at some times (thus mixtape?) and overt signaling from Matana. This was not fully charted dots: my ears suggested there were lines that were written (they sometimes played unison, or played themes that were obviously related) but the performance was largely improvised. As I understood, the story was of a black slave girl several generations back in Matana’s own family. Matana played sax but also spoke and sang, often using words as sound as much as literature. “I was born in 1752” was one of the first lines, and the story was of slavery, abuse, and survival of this girl and black slaves in America. The video had frequent views of train tracks, and I wondered if this spoke of the famed Underground railroad escape route, as well as family photos and a picture of a young girl. Whatever, this was beautiful music played with skill and with a real message. Many of the methods were experimental and the improvisation was atonal, but I delighted in the themes that would show through and hold the piece together and the very beautiful use of voice by Matana. A stunning presentation and intimately purposeful piece of music. Matana Roberts (alto, composition), Daniel Levin (cello), Shoko Nagai (piano), Thomson Kneeland (bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums).

    Hello to Martin Longley who I met at this outing. He's a jazz writer for the BBC Music website, Jazzwise magazine, the NYC Jazz Record and Coventry Telegraph newspapers and I read his recent interview with the Necks in a current local NY jazz paper. Very nice to have a chat and compare notes about matters of jazz writing, although mine is pastime rather than profession.


    There was joy and brilliance aplenty the other night. Geri Allen played the Village Vanguard. She’d been there for the week but this was a different and special show. When I arrived, I heard that Christian McBride was sitting in on bass for this one gig. Trumpeter Marcus Belgrave was another addition just for this night. Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts rounded out the band. What a band, and how unexpected. Marcus was an early support for Geri, so there’s a love there. But beyond that, this stage glowed with joy and was riddled with communication. From the arrival on stage, there was casual patter with audience and private smiles and chatter on the stage. Geri led - you could see that in the respectful glances - but this was a partnership, even a family, and her offsiders gave generously. There was normal, human communication with eyes searching and often locked. Certainly Geri was all eyes on the band and almost nil to keyboard, and Jeff was gazing to follow her leads. Marcus and Christian a bit less so, although they looked often enough too. But the musical communication was paramount. Geri was a master of chordal colours that could ape a solo but also lead it with harmonic movements, modal or rhythmical. This is the complexity of the spoken word and these are Shakespearean skills. She was nothing less in solos, of course. Blues with inflections and simplicity; modal with fourths and symmetrical movements that just floored me. I know it’s done, I’ve heard it on record but never live like this. Christian was rock-like solidity with huge tone and absolute steadiness and plenty of space and smiles. This is a big man playing a big instrument that he fitted. The solos were no different, just more. Melodic and appropriate and musical, but devastating and speedy across the neck, and up into the thumb positions. I wondered if some lines were humanly possible, they were so quick and so sustained. They were and he did them. Clearly work of a master with immense knowledge and easy interpretation. I must admit that the concert was too short to capture it all; I was so enraptured by Geri and Christian that I didn’t listen enough to Marcus and Jeff. Marcus Belgrave was an older man and I thought not too well, but his happiness was infectious. The night felt like a family get-together, and there were clearly old mates in the audience because they were chatting after. His trumpet and flugelhorn were post-bop expressive, I thought maybe tested by age, but there were some soulful melodies and a few explosive quick lines. Jeff ‘Tain’ was all groove but also some volume. His is not a drumming of sly infection or of sparkling rudiments. This was more earthy and thumping and on occasion very loud. Here too there’s a family story. He’s got young girl children – I’d seen him carrying one out of the Vanguard between shows – and his wife is from the Sunshine Coast. We should see him more often. All these players were open, lyrical, simple when called for, but virtuosic on call with ease and without affectation. They played generously and the tunes were generously encountered, so the weren’t many. The trio started with a gentle Lucky to be me with immense space and heavy groove. Marcus joined them from the second tune, a ¾ with clinical beauty. There was a quick latin groove and Sunflower done with the subtly and expression of the Freddie Hubbard original. I’ve played this and heard this often enough, but this was another thing again. Geri led another tune with a sparse groove that Christian took up. I thought it may have been Summertime and maybe it was based on that, but it never resolved into the melody an eventually morphed into a blues. There was perhaps one other tune.

    I haven’t done any of this justice. Geri’s glorious piano and Christian’s devastating bass were so special and the time so short. I needed another set at least to grow to live with these skills and to be able to give time to Tain and Marcus. It was like that: informed masters playing with ease and joy. Too good. Geri Allen (piano) played with Marcus Belgrave (trumpet, flugelhorn), Christian McBride (bass) and Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts (drums) at the Village Vanguard, NYC. Village Vanguard doesn't allow pics during the performance.