This Easter weekend I went to the National Jazz Festival in Tauranga. I was there primarily to cover the Jazz Tui Award announcement for New Zealand Musician, and also a symposium on the formation of a Jazz Federation in NZ but I decided to take the opportunity to attend some the other jazz events. Although the Festival starts on the Thursday I wasn’t able to get down there until Saturday afternoon, so the first event I went to was ‘A Short History of Jazz’.
The presentation ‘A Short History of Jazz’ was created and organised by Andrew Laking in Wellington last year and held at the Wellington Museum of Land and Sea. In its full format it is a four one hour-long series of concert lectures (and can be listened to here), each focusing on a decade. In the Tauranga presentation tempter Lex French led the band in the presentation of the 1920s. This was an excellent choice for a jazz festival audience, which included anyone and everyone (from toddlers to the elderly- and jazz fans and not jazz fans), because the music and the history are such fun for both musicians and audience. The presentation began boldly with a rendition of Louis Armstrong’s iconic West End Blues- you know, this one . The band: Lex French (trumpet), Jake Baxendale (clarinet) Dan Yeabsley (alto saxophone and tuba) Ben Wilcock (piano) Andrew Laking (bass) and John Rae (drums). The group then proceeded to romp through a wide array of 1920s music- and most importantly kept to the spirit and the sound of the 1920s! There were a few times where their ‘20isms’ sounded a little rote to my ears, but it would be incredibly challenging to keep their improvisations modernism free (and would require a lot of concentration!) and I salute them for it.
The snippets of history that Lex French and the other musicians interjected between the pieces were very engaging and entertaining, though I have to admit as a historian I disagree with some of the sensationalisation (and interpretation) that came through in some of the off the cuff remarks. This was probably completely intentional, but the audience clearly found these things ‘scandalous’! However, as a presentation to a primarily non-jazz audience this was a great way of getting people interested in the history of the music they were listening to.
One hour really wasn’t long enough to satisfy the audience, and we were definitely left wanting more. I definitely wished there was more time to showcase pianist Ben Wilcock- I would have loved to have heard him going all Fats Waller because what stride he played was tatalising to say the least- and I would have loved to have heard the other frontliners (Jake Baxendale and Dan Yeabsley) in more lead parts. Not that Lex French wasn’t great (he was!), but there were times that I thought that clarinet or saxophone might suit the lead better.
The next day I spent the afternoon at the Downtown Carnival gorging on a feast of all types of jazz (and jazz related music). First up I watched The Jac from Wellington. A nominee for this year’s Jazz Tui award, they pulled out two awesome sets of old and new (about to be recorded for their second album-yay!) music. A combination of four frontline and four rhythm players they are quite a unique band- a self described little big band, and their music definitely reflects that fact. They write and arrange music in a way that reflects a big band sound with the horns producing an awesome lush sounds that sounds way bigger than it should, and is well supported by their rhythm section who all add to this lush sound.
While The Jac were having a set break I wandered over to the next stage and caught a little of Musika (a Auckland group of mostly Pacific Island musicians- and it seemed to be a mix of teenagers and young adults), who were performing some marvellous funk arrangements, with great aplomb belying their average age (which looked to be about 16- though I could be wrong).
After The Jac finished their set I listened to Carnivorous Plant Society- and they sure do live up to their name. It was a trippy, psychedelic, Mariachi inspired, gypsy influenced, fantastical, conglomeration of jazz. Incredibly fun, and my brain is still trying to figure it all out! The band was definitely multi-talented with their front liners both playing multiple instruments, and in the case of their band-leader, Finn Scholes at the same time occasionally- very impressive.
Wandering on to other stages I ran across the West Coast Jazz Band- a Raglan based jazz band that focuses on 1950s and 1960s classic repertoire. Their set was incredible- they took on repertoire that most jazz musicians leave alone because they are so linked to specific musicians and specific recordings. I’m in total admiration at them taking on this challenging repertoire and for doing it with great assurance, and keeping in the spirit and sound of 1950s/1960s jazz- which much like the Short History of Jazz presentation has its own challenges to not slip into current modernisms.
Then there was the Richie Pickard band with the inimitable Kevin Field (my former jazz piano and improv. teacher from Auckland Uni) on keys. Playing a mix of originals by the members of the band provided some great straight-ahead jazz with a distinctly kiwi inflection. They also had a special guest in the form of the wonderful vocalist Fantine (whom they accompanied the previous night for her main solo gig at the festival). Her vocals were deep and delicious and her spot was tantalising enough for me to make sure I heard her set the next day at the Jazz Village.
Finally I caught the end of the Hipstamatics set- although I have to say that I was hearing them all up and down the set of stages (not a criticism on them, but more on the organisers that had loud funk and soul bands playing on stages alternating with acoustic or semi-acoustic bands- it didn’t make listening easy sometimes). They were incredibly high-powered playing covers and originals of soul-funk and certainly made a great end to the carnival. Perhaps the organisers should have had them perform after the end of the other bands sets, however, because the noise pollution (as good as the sound engineers were) was impossible to escape.
The final day of the festival was devoted to the Jazz Village. The Historic Village in South Tauranga was transformed into the mythical ‘French Quarter’ with a collection of different indoor and outdoor stages with a wide variety of jazz being performed. I started the afternoon off with the Creative Jazz Club stage in the ‘New Orleans Jazz Factory’ (aka the village hall) watching Auckland group Dog- Roger Manins (sax), Kevin Field (piano) Olivier Holland (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums) and Australian jazz pianist Chris Cody perform- with Cody using all the members of Dog (excepting pianist Kevin Field) in the course of his set. Both acts were fantastic, and in such different ways, which highlighted the versatility of the members of Dog.
At 2.30 the Jazz Tui award was announced- which as I noted in an earlier post went to Dog for their self titled debut album. This was quite lucky in a way as only on representative from the other nominees remained! So not only did we get a speech from the guys, but also an encore performance. After the announcement I decided to try and see what was happening on the other stages, but it was incredibly crowded in all the other venues. After a 10 minute wait I was able to get into ‘Preservation Hall’ and hear some of BBC (Bay Blues Company) and Friends who were playing some fantastic, danceable (there was a couple doing foxtrot and quickstep out on the balcony), early jazz- as befitted the idea of Preservation Hall. The other stages however- with the exception of the outdoor stage) were impossible to get into, but from what I heard hovering around outside there was some great music going on.
The big finale to the day and the festival was the Big Easy Outdoor Stage, which featured The Wellington City Shake-‘Em-On-Downers, Fantine and Joel Shadbolt with Roger Fox each doing sets. I admit I didn’t stay to the end (it had been a long day, with the Jazz Federation symposium in the morning- but more about that in another post), but I did stay until the last set was playing.
This was the first time I’d managed to see the Shake-‘Em-On-Downers live (previously I’d just seen and heard them on the internet), and I was incredibly impressed by this band. They’ve taken the 1920s and turned it into their own style. Not only do they cover 1920s jazz repertoire, but they also compose in that style. They don’t recreate per se, but rather they’ve taken the inspiration and given it a modern twist. I really enjoy it when bands don’t just try and recreate a certain period but make it as modern and as fresh as today’s jazz. Very few bands try to do this, and it’s very hard to do successfully, but the Shake-‘Em-On-Downers do so magnificently. It was great toe-tapping, and get-up-and-dance music, very much in the original purpose of 1920s jazz, and certainly energised the crowd.
After an hour of high energy 1920s inspired music we had a radical style shift when Fantine took the stage backed by the Richie Pickard Band. A modern torch singer Fantine embraced the audience with her rich deep voice, and huge sound. She sang a mix of originals and standards, giving each her own twist, whether it was singing them in Spanish or French (or a mix of languages!), or giving them a different style. Fantine certainly knows how to read an audience, and we were all in the palm of her hand. Even after the encore of ‘La Vie en Rosé’, the audience wanted more. In fact I think that we would have been happy to have her perform all night!
The final act of the night was the Joel Shadbolt band playing their brand of soul-funk. Unfortunately all the standing up and lots of listening was catching up with me so I have to admit, I only stayed for their first song and I can’t really give a review of them. They seemed like they were a perfectly competent band, and I’d like to hear them when I’m not exhausted by two days of intense listening- I have no idea how people who go to practically everything at a jazz festival cope! I’ll just have to practice up for next year I think!