At the end of May the Basie Band toured New Zealand, giving us some phenomenal concerts (you can read reviews here and here– lucky people who got comps- I’m definitely jealous!). Their lead tenor Doug Lawrence stayed on in Auckland for a week giving a concert at the University of Auckland on Queens Birthday Monday (June 1) and a workshop at the university on the Wednesday (June 3) followed by a gig at CJC. I attended both the workshop and the CJC gig on Wednesday, and good Lord, both were revelations!
I’ll be straight- I’d never heard of Doug Lawrence before these gigs. I figured if he’s in the Basie Band he must be good, but I was not prepared at how absolutely amazing he is! The trouble with the American jazz scene is that it’s so huge that sometimes even amazing great players get lost in the mix and if you’re outside of the US it’s even harder to find out about them (even now- sometimes the internet can actually be a hindrance. Too many musicians, too little time), until they appear in front of you. Now though, I’m a fan and I plan on tracking down everything thing he’s recorded.
The workshop at the University of Auckland was held at the Kenneth Myers Centre, which is the home of the jazz studies course (fun NZ music history fact the building was home to radio station 1YA in the 1920s and 1930s and then to TVNZ in the 1960s- that’s a ton of NZ music history right there!). The workshop was split into two parts the first part was ‘talk and play’ Lawrence played with first with some of the jazz faculty (Kevin Field, piano; Ron Samsom, drums; Kevin Haines, bass), and then with any students who were brave enough to go up for a jam. In between he regaled us with anecdotes of being a young musician.
As a third generation musician he knows better than most the ups and downs of being a musician and what was really inspirational was that he didn’t just share the highs and triumphs, but also the times when he was too scared to take his horn out at a jam session. These types of stories are not ones that get bandied about by musicians, and it was really good to hear them and for the jazz students to understand that even amazing musicians have hard graft at the start of their careers. Everyone in the room drank it all up. Once he got past the initial nerves and career hiccups Lawrence has played with a veritable who’s who of musicians and bands, and he imparted some of the lessons he learned with some of his mentors.
The second part of the workshop was a saxophone sectional for the university’s big band. This was…phenomenal! I learned more about playing Basie charts in 15 minutes listening to him direct the students than I did in semesters of analysis and arranging as an undergrad. Not that my teachers weren’t good- they were very good, but the experience of playing in the Basie band certainly tops anything that you could learn through other methods. In was interesting to see him direct the students on how to approach the attack of notes, how to give the feel of space between notes, dynamics, tone, and power (and he is a very powerful player- with very little effort he could have easily drowned the entire section out). On working with the rhythm section versus the saxophone section he explained that the feel came the saxes being laid back, but the rhythm players were on the beat, giving it that signature groove. All these (and many other) small details are goes into making the Basie band sound the way that it does, and it was wonderful to hear the saxophone section get into the groove of Lawrence’s suggestions. It would have been wonderful to hear him work with the full big band, because I’m curious about his take on the brass section- perhaps another time. As a teacher Lawrence is wonderfully supportive- his critiques of the students were never harsh and he was unstinting in his praise when they got things they way that he wanted them.
Later that night Lawrence appeared with Kevin, Ron and Oli Holland (bass) at CJC. This was a gig that defies description- it was all the positive adjectives! The first half of the evening was Lawrence with rhythm section playing a selection of standards, beginning with ‘End of a Love Affair’ and Lawrence propelled Kevin, Ron and Oli to new heights (and they already have considerable game!) to the great delight of the crowd. The synergy between the musicians pulled the audience in and we were a noisier than usual crowd encouraging the band to go further and deeper. Lawrence gifted us a wide range of moods in that first set- from blues so hot that the fire brigade nearly had to be called, to tender deep ballads that embraced the room. It was an extraordinary gig that bought out alchemy between musicians that can only be described as the zone.
Just when we thought the gig couldn’t get any better- Lawrence brought in Roger Manins and Nathan Haines for a bit of, well, tenor madness. The trio of tenor players (with Haines switching to soprano for some sections) proceeded to blow the roof off on Coltrane’s ‘Impressions’. The crowd was so excited that it practically became the second coming of Beatlemania (minus the hysterics…but only just!). This was a sensational set- I don’t recall the last time I left a jazz gig hoarse from whooping and cheering. Just when you thought they had reached their peak the players spurred each other on higher. The rhythm section (with Oli Holland replaced by Kevin Haines) created new depths of groove against which the tenors plied their siren songs. The end of the night came far too soon, despite going overtime by nearly an hour, and it was clear that no one- audience or musicians- wanted to stop and leave. It was one of those magical gigs that people feel privileged to witness, and to be able to say ‘I was there’.
If you were unable to get to the gig though John Fenton has uploaded some snippets of video and reviewed the Basie and CJC gigs here.