John Key’s Jazz Monsters
Odd Music Productions.
Long before there was a dead-eyed monster called John Key roaming this land and ruining healthcare – somehow proud in an aw-shucks way that the people who allegedly liked him in his old job also had a nickname for him as “The Smiling Assassin” – there was this John Key. The pianist. A kind musical soul playing inventive jazz shapes, adhering to tradition and honouring standards whilst seeking out new space via colourful original works.
This John Key must be glad that John Key is gone from public view. Or mostly gone.
This John Key has a new album out and to my ears it’s his best.
The British-born musician, a resident in NZ since the early 1970s, here fronts a larger ensemble – known as the Jazz Monsters. Previous outings have had him at the helm of a trio or quarter, but some of the names in this new group are old hands, that have worked with Key previously. It’s a killer-line-up – sax and flute player Steve Sherriff, trumpeter Mike Booth, drummer Malcolm Taylor, bassist Mat Fieldes and Fin Scholes, a talented multi-instrumentalist here sitting in on extra trumpet and vibes. Key is at the keys, controlling things without ever dominating. He allows ample space for other soloists, for the rhythm section to sometimes lead from the back, for his own playing to be the blueprint; musical schematic.
Opener, Zombie Hop, has some Brubeck-ian phrases slipping in over a slinky rhythm section and the wafting from the horns, it’s a cool but gentle glide of an opening track – a nice way to slip into the album. All the players get equal chance to shine; the sound of the ensemble is the star here.
From there it’s to Art Fraud, a walk on the bass, a tinkle from the piano, the sizzle of the hi-hat and a wee late-night alley croon of sax; we are in jazz’s dark den and loving it. A glorious bit of swing-meets-bop balladry.
The title track opens with Sherriff’s delightful flute motif and the piano sitting in under with the bass and drums. Each song has a different feel but the collective feel of the band is what continues to drive this music into place. Key has a way with a melody, allowing it to unfurl and just gently nestle down into place. Like smoke, these musical memories linger.
Night Kitchen and Flight Risk continue this pace – late-night jazz reveries, the mood is candles and the air might be thick with smoke, the music is rich and warm and inviting.
Bits of blues (Moana Sands Sunset) and New Orleans (Swampy Marsh) and even a poolside fiesta (Party Piece) show the versatility of both the players involved and Key’s writing. In that sense his playing and composing reminds me of when Bob James is in a jazz frame of mind.
A gorgeous set of musical moods here, expertly played. And not a dead-eye in the house. Thankfully.