Riki Gooch: NGĀ TUONE
St. Peter’s on Willis, Wellington Jazz Festival
Friday, November 22
I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone else that thinks about music the way Riki Gooch does. You can pile up any of the usual clichés – the music flows through him, he is a conduit for groove, he lives and breathes it, he is the music; the music is (in) him. All of this is true and yet transcends any notion of cliché.
I thought about this as I watched his jazz festival presentation of the new symphony NGĀ TUONE featuring an ensemble of hugely talented players all working for Riki’s vision, responding to the wave of a hand.
Drawn from the composing/arranging work of Butch Morris, Gooch’s structured improvisation for ensemble saw him as the ringleader, the conductor, the bandleader, the master of this ceremony. And with the wave of his wand and the waggle of a finger he would encourage out the length of notes from the musicians – a quick finger point resulting staccato stabs; creating tennis-matches between duos of players, putting them on the spot, the music a live ball being bounced about the stage. This came to be in an almost literal representation when Gooch used table-tennis balls as a visual (and subtly rhythmic) cue for the group – a huge toss of the ball in the air issuing a collective shriek punctuated by a cymbal crash and deep moans of bass as the ball hit the stage, the music soundtracking it as close to the moment as possible.
Gooch, out front, his back to the audience, was a master of what felt almost like a musical version of Tai Chi – there was something of Frank Zappa’s fusion in the more groove-based moments. You could think of the longer works by Archie Shepp and Max Roach too, certainly Charles Mingus’ work for mid-sized ensembles.
Among the many remarkable things to think about as this was happening was how great the individual musicians were and how trusting they all were of each other and the wider concept; basically sitting lithe and ready to have their technical facility manipulated. Their beautiful noise – alternately discordant and almost ethereal in its enchantment – was a collective muscle being worked over by Riki Gooch; the team physio and strategist, the plumber, painter and maths professor. Connecting the dots, creating the picture, solving the problem.
This, then was the outlet for the voices, noises, sounds in his head. This was the sound of his soul being carried to audience by some of the greatest local players across the last quarter century. Young stars and older heads sharing the stage – band members putting down cello bows to work with Taonga pūoro; violin, water-harp, flute, saxophones and modular synths all working through and against each other while a jazz rhythm section gathered itself around the tunes – at first playing abstract and then combining to make a post-bop template that rumbled in the way that overtly jazz composers from Mingus to John Zorn have used upright bass and conventional drumkit as the constant reminder of the familiar stomping ground while layering in their movie-score moments from a film that will only ever happen once.
Riki is known to many as a drummer, primarily. He’s been a mult-instrumentalist, composer and conceptualist for nearly as long of course. Tonight he was the conductor ‘playing’ the sound of the band. Being the music for his musicians. He not only knows the score – he was it; a manuscript embodied. We’ve heard of producers and engineers that play the studio as if an instrument. This was a performer playing the stage and everyone on it. A musical schematic being laid out by a band comprised of engine pistons.
It was thrilling and beautiful, interactive (for the final piece he even conducted the audience to wave the evening’s program flyer as a part of the sound) and the very best moments felt truly amazing as they washed over us. Music you would never hear again but could stay in your head as you carry a little part of it now in your soul.
I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone else that thinks about music the way Riki Gooch does. I’m proud to know him. And was blown away to witness this.
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