Wellington Jazz Festival, New Zealand 2020

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Wellington Jazz Fest
18th – 22nd November 2020
Wellington, New Zealand.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar. Photography by Stephen A’Court.

Finally, after months of waiting, the rescheduled Wellington Jazz Festival kicked off on Wednesday 18 November. I was lucky enough to attend three flagship events while soaking up some of the awesome vibes from the ‘Coolest Little Capital’.

Usually, this event kicks off in the cooler months, around June, when the skies turn to sleet-sheets and the temperatures plummet. But this year, thanks to Covid-19 the long weekend of jazz and funk-arts was delayed and restarted in spring. With musicians holed up in their studios there was ample time to work on new things. With a bit of extra sponsorship Tāwhiri, the Fesitival’s organisers, were able to commission a number of artists to create special works. The money went to Kevin Field, Blair Latham, Riki Gooch (all covered below) and Pianist Anita Schwabe, who’d created a musical journey from the busy Cuba Mall Street to tranquil Otari-Wilton Bush, complete with artistic photography.

The festival began with the time-travelling tunes from Blair Latham and the Noveltones at the wonderful St. Peter’s Church – the very same celestial space Amanda Palmer played two weeks ago, and a superb acoustic space for music.

The Noveltones are an assembly of gifted equals, collated by soprano saxophonist Jasmine Lovell-Smith, who studied in the USA is at present working toward a doctorate in composition at the NZSM. Tonight it was led by bass clarinet player Blair Latham (who spent years in Mexico) and also included bassist Tom Callwood (Melancholy Stinging Babes), and Tristan Carter, violinist. When I first heard them, I was initially reminded of Gunter Schuller’s third-stream pieces, but they are in no way time locked into that mode, as they show a constant search for new inspiration, especially in the bush and city of the Capital’s hills. Their pieces are often balanced, spiky beauties, with familiar surrounding tones and appealing textural qualities.

The gig opened with a ‘tune’ called ‘It has begun’, blending French style horn treatments and meandering imagery of town meets creeping bush line that reminded me of Jack Body’s wonderful ode to Wellington, ‘The Streets of My City’. That merged into part two from Latham’s suite call ‘Don’t Be So Harsh’. And then Jasmine Lovell-Smith’s (Soprano Sax) long brooding ‘Metamorphosis’ – a piece that definitely challenged a horn player’s breathing techniques.

They followed that by the first half of ‘Don’t Be So Harsh’, which Latham calls his ‘German’ idea. You can certainly hear plenty of long oboe-like notes from Lovell-Smith’s soprano sax. It’s a sexy, simmering Berlin-cabaret styled moody blues that slinks along before bursting into the light, speeding up as it finishes.

Then there’s ‘Ratchet’, a lullaby by bassist Tom Callwood for his future son. Soft it is not, and surprisingly caustic. The opposite of peaceful, culminating in an explosive cacophony of twisted distortion.

The night completes with Latham’s Commissioned piece, written during Lock down. ‘Karla and the Divide’ documents a fictional character returning from Mexico, where the division between rich and poor, caused by drugs – at least in part – starts to manifest itself in Aotearoa as well. To accompany this piece drummer and mixed media artist Andy Wright created and projected onto a huge screen these surreal visuals that appeared to be close-ups of grainy desert floors snapped in dreamy time-lapse, blurred heat shadows and plant life fragments. These were strangely fluid, abstract, and visceral.

Then the music builds in a swirling counter motion, juxtaposing the images of grains of sand and moss spiralling down a plug hole. But, mid-tune, the mood turns dark and there are deep, bizarre soundscapes full of a low hum and buzz, made from pedals and a bass throbbing like a far away helicopter. This is soon punctuated by screams from the horns, which morphs in to squawks of techno-bubbles, courtesy of Dan Beban’s music manipulation toolbox. Another tempo change, to a metro-sexy street vibe with a hip and lonely alto sax drawl. Then, more chaos with fast and slow tape samples racing across the ear-scape (Beban, again). On the screen, there’s an ever widening, flowing river of gold – a metaphor of money, its divisive powers, that harks back to the theme of wealth division. The tension builds until finally the mood returns to a cooler vibe again. On the screen there are usual bands of colour strutting in time with the beat of the bass. The piece slowly envelopes itself and comes in to land.

Latham wrote a short story to draw together the parallels he was drawing between what he’d seen in Mexico and here. I’m not entirely sure how it works with the music and visual but as a live event, it was certainly a thrilling, thought provoking experience.

Sadly, other commitments meant I had to miss pianist Kevin Field’s performance on Thursday, but I heard it was a very special night. My spies told me his commissioned pieces were a triumph. ‘Tūrangawaewae’; ‘Te Ūkaipō O Te Pūoro Tautito’ and ‘Mahi Tahi’, were all based around social distancing of various kinds and his connections with longtime collaborator NYC-based bass player Matt Penman. Because Penman was locked down in New York the work had to be written over Zoom, and this added to the themes of separation and isolation. That said, the music was slickly performed. My friend told me that, at least to his ears, even though these were were ‘academic’ tunes, it was easy to distinguish between the moments set in the hustle and bustle of the big Apple and the contrasting relaxed environment of Wellington and the South Coast.

On Friday night I was very lucky to catch Riki Gooch’s ‘Ngā Tuone’ (his Festival commissioned work). There had been plenty of buzz around this sold-out gig, and it didn’t fail to disappoint.

The work was born out of study Gooch is doing for his PHD. He told me that he’d “been studying the methodology of (American Composer/Conductor) Butch Morris – which he calls ‘Conduction’ (like electrical conduction). This is very different from the usual way a conductor would lead and direct an orchestra or a band. As opposed to the usual method of performance, the music is not scored, written down. The orchestra or band has an understanding of particular hand signals. These are gestures that represent the structure of a small section of music. Normally, a conductor has control over how long a note is, the shape, form. In this case a gesture gives that to the player, who also provides the colour and volume. The gesture is like a brief, which the musician improvises. Like the gist of a phrase, without specific words to learn, just the idea.” You can read my full interview here.

Gooch has created a ‘symphony’ of four parts that moves from ‘nothingness’ to awakening, vibrant life, and finally death. ‘Ngā Tuone’, directly incorporates themes of te ao Māori – the interconnectedness of all things living and non-living, the structure of this symphony focuses on the Māori song form of Mōteatea (chants) – all performed by an innovative ensemble. And what an extraordinary performance it was. The room was packed with local musicians and jazz fans. I spied a few local heroes including Warren Maxwell, historian Chris Bourke, broadcaster Nick Bollinger, singer Lisa Tomlins singer, amongst others.

This was my second night at St Peter’s, a fabulous venue for Jazz. I must say it seemed odd to be sitting on a pew sipping a craft beer in the back row of a church I’d once sung in as a choir boy, my uniform pressed and shoes shinning, tie straight. No need for schoolboy disciplines and formalities. Tonight’s congregation was much more relaxed, pinot gris and bubbles, an no Nuns with rulers to rap ill-disciplined knuckles tonight.

Eleven players and one vocalist, Anna Edgington, take up the stage. There’s a harp, double bass, xylophone , cello, various taonga porou (played by Al Fraser), drums and cymbals, a modular synth (played by Parks), a swinging microphone cello ‘played’ by David Long (Muttonbirds, Teeth) and even a water harp. Plus an assortment of other instruments.

The first movement (‘Nothingness: Birth’) is a long-controlled drone with punctured by Edgington’s operatic vocals, which are modulated by our conductor as if he was controlling her by knobs and faders. In fact, to watch Gooch, it was like that scene from ‘Mr Beans Christmas’ where Bean grabs the conductor’s baton and takes over the Salvation Army Band, speeding up, slowing down, picking off individual notes and twisting speeds of the carols. Only, this particular performance was much more academic, sophisticated and Avant Garde.

Lithe and lean, with his thin moustache, skull cap, robe and kimono cape, Gooch appears like Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon. And indeed he was the sorcerer’s apprentice swaying and contorting his body, shaping his aural sculpture with hand movements, flicks of his feathered wand, transforming the very shape of sound like it was made of some kind of invisible clay.

We are used to a Pūtātara (conch shell) welcoming in the light. In this case the initial drone (the move from nothing to early lifeforms) created by Fraser’s Pūkāea and the horns becomes the breath of the wind, and then bird call and the sounds of the forest floor with twittering blips and beeps, the hum of the land warming up.

The second movement (Chaos of Life and Death) starts with David Long swinging a microphone in a circular motion, its own drone mirrored by Al Fraser’s (Purerehua) a wind instrument. Then digital timpani and a real tom drum (played by Cory Champion) kick in, as if coming from a distant place. Flutes and horns come in and the drone returns.

The third movement (‘Death’) seems to be incorrectly named. Instead of the expected dirge, it starts with snare and walking bass, a groove like a ‘traditional’ jazz tune. Then Gooch pull out a box of ping pong balls and bounces them randomly. With each ball bounce, the orchestra mimic its shapes and arc, going up and down in time with its motions. He then throws the ball high in the air. The horns play high notes interpreting the altitude. This provides a moment great laughter and fun in a piece that should be sombre. It completes with more manipulation. Using his hands and a series of wild gestures he modulates the ensemble as the sing like random, chattering choir.

In the final movement, ‘Transcendence’, Gooch asks the audience to fan their programmes on his ‘downbeat’ motion, creating a flurry of sound like beating seagull wings or rain on a roof. Over this he layers a multitude of squawks, squeaks, blips and more drones. The impact is incredible. The whole performance is completely extraordinary and almost impossible to capture accurately on the page.

It was even more extraordinary to realise that the performance was built around improvisation and a great deal of trust from the performers. Those hand signals contained a great deal of meaning. I wish that somehow we could have seen Gooch as the orchestra saw him, as he had his back to us for most of the night. Perhaps we may have understood more. That said, this bizarre, outrageous, experimental music, was a perfect fit for the festival, and worth the commission, I’d say. It belonged to a festival setting, because it’s only something you can experience in person. I will take away my own memories of an awesome night, where I was challenged out of my comfort zone, yet I was still left standing and unharmed. Who knew you could conduct music with ping pong balls?

Saturday and the highlight of the festival had to be Tom Scott’s Avantdale Bowling Club. He played to a packed Wellington Opera House of 1,500. The gig starts with a wry and dry dedication to all those landlords out there. Pity how they’ve suffered over Covid. The housing crisis isn’t real, it’s a fake new beat up, Scott proffers, before blasting into ‘Pocket Lint’ with his own observations of accommodation woes and the gentrification of his own neighborhood. Scott dives into intricate rhymes, spitting them out with exceptional passion, pace and vigor. The music goes in one direction, then another, yet Scott’s own trajectory is straight up the centre. Scott fires off his rhymes like a Gatling gun over layers of perfect jazz, music that swarms and swirls like the heady complex tunes Pharaoh Sanders and Charlie. The show was a perfect slice of the Avantdale catalogue, with big hitters like ‘F(r)iends’ and ‘Water’.

Tonight, we have a treat. Mara TK has joined the stage. He provides a layer of ‘freaky-ness’ with vocals that slide between silky soul to screams and bird-screeches. Dressed in a piu piu, neon yellow bike shorts and leather jacket he jumps about the stage, playing guitar, keys and providing random backing vocals.

Julien Dyne provides an incredible drum solo, and JY Lee on sax completely floors us with his own blazing solo during ‘Home’. The same song gets a bit of additional attention when Mara breaks into Gil Scott Heron’s version and then back the Tom Scott’s completely original number.

At one point, Scott looks up from under the low brim of his bucket hat at the people dancing in the ‘royal’ box and comments: “You better look after that place. This is the opera house. The Prince Of Wales sat there, you know, doing Colonial shit, oppressing everyone…. The Queen was there, hanging off an arm, wanting to get back home.” And that’s the cue to complete another track about sense of place and identity ‘Home’). Scott’s message tonight is all about knowing where you come from and respecting your roots. He has a message for the predominantly 20-something crowd. Buy into and grow up in your own ‘hood, respect where you came from and give back to the community.

Somewhere in the middle he throws in an untitled number, a new song, dedicated to the ‘referendum’, presumably the Cannabis one. Although the rhymes contain lines about life and death, controlling your world, smoking all day and Maori getting arrested for carrying.

Scott’s band, which he’s dubbed ‘Peter Blake and the Jazz Messengers’, are phenomenal. They play layers and layers of perfect jazz over which Scott once again fires off a AK-47 clip full of raps and rhymes. Sometimes his voice is lost in the malaise of horns and drums but mostly you can understand every word. He’s a very clever writer and thoughtful. In one moment, he mixes the feeling of an ulcer with an anxiety over gentrification and rising house prices and visits to the doctors, who gives him financial advice, as a cure. It’s a very crafty juxtaposition.

‘Years Go By’, the ‘single’ completes the night. It’s an extended play that builds and builds to ecstatic levels, then Scott finishes and leaves the band to play on, winding down as if the meter’s run out. No good byes, no bowing. This is the first time I’d seen ABC in action. What a class act. I’ll be back. I already bought the record on the way out!

Elsewhere in town bars featured gigs celebrating Nat King Cole, Basie and Sinatra (At the Sands), and Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s 1956 masterpiece ‘Ella and Louis’ and even a film with live music nodding toward the jazz-age cinema G.W. Pabst. Wellington was alive with Jazz all weekend. As a Welly born and bred, it was fabulous to walk the streets and feel this vibe – in a city that was finally awakening from it’s Post-Covid slumber. Welcome back. Many thanks to Marnie Kamelita and the crew at Tāwhiri for involving Ambient in this vibrant, brilliant festival. Ka Pai!

Were you there in Wellington for this triumphant festival? Or have you been to the Wellington Jazz Festival some other time? Tell us about it in the comments below!

Note: [AD] The Wellington Jazz Festival provided passes to Ambient Light to review these shows. As always, this has not influenced the review in any way and the opinions expressed are those of Ambient Light’s only. This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase a product using an affiliate link, Ambient Light will automatically receive a small commission.

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