Meow, Wellington Jazz Festival
Thursday, June 10
An Auckland “supergroup” of session stalwarts was put together to sell classic hard bop-era jazz to casual fans, to purists, to, well, anyone that might turn up. It was a shame more people weren’t there to hear them at Wellington’s Jazz Festival performance, the group’s Capital City debut. But then, this is the problem with festivals – you throw a whole of things out in one go and split the audience. The problem with hosting the event outside of a festival is that there’s no real awareness of it and the audience remains small. So I’m not attempting to have the answer. It’s my job to ask the questions.
This was a band of workhorses – Kevin Field on the piano, one of our very finest, so adaptable, and never in search of a limelight to steal, always just doing the work. Mike Booth and Pete France on trumpet and saxophone respectively, Wil Goodinson was the young buck on bass and on drums living legend Frank Gibson Jr. He is our Philly Joe Jones. Our Art Blakey. Our Elvin. Our Buddy.
Opening with Miles Davis’ So What, it was cool to hear this group leap effortlessly into post-war, modern standards – Wayne Shorter and Dextor Gordon composition also sitting in and around the group’s originals.
But I can’t say that things ever really got firing – maybe the fault of the small crowd, maybe just the vibe on the night. Safety seemed the default setting.
There was a version of Straight, No Chaser and there were original tunes that showed glimpses of a band able to really stun. Gibson’s Eager Beaver started with a showcase of a mini drum solo in the vein of a Max Roach composition before Field was given ample space to explore and extrapolate the melody. Gorgeous playing all around.
And for the most part I was just happy to see Frank Gibson do his thing – finding space to seemingly slow things down and find new spaces to accent the groove by striking the bell of the ride cymbal as punctuation without ever letting the groove loose. Masterful.
I thought Booth and France worked well to split and share solos – to never hog the spot, they were dutiful if anything, maybe they could have gone harder, heavier.
But, while it lasted, this gig was good. To call it ‘nice’ seems a little light, and dismissive – but I mean that in the very best possible way. It was nice. To see them all play. To once or twice even feel that. To appreciate the skill, the wise choices and the decent originals. I can’t help but think that a better use of their skill and time would be to go all in with a full tribute – play a classic album in its entirety, or at least do all covers from the era, shelve the original tunes (even though they were fine) and build it as something with more of a meaning behind it. Because maybe the lack of real weight and grit came from players wishing to perform their own tunes and feeling it was mere lip-service to a few classic tunes from masters. So that’s the alternative isn’t it – just play originals. And what’s the outcome there? Probably and even smaller audience than they got for doing this.