How important is the Jazz Festival for Wellington? How pleased are you to have it back?
The Jazz Festival has played a hugely significant role for musicians in this town over the last 15 years. It’s allowed us to see top level international acts; sometimes to collaborate with some of these artists. It’s allowed us to put forward our creative vision too. It’s been one of the only major music festivals in the country which isn’t driven by a purely commercial ethos. Unlike most jazz festivals around NZ, indeed around the world, it doesn’t pretend to define jazz in a strict sense, it is open and inclusive and forward looking.
This is something of a fresh start for the festival, and I think the idea is to bring it back to where it was around the early 2000s in terms of musicians playing a central role in the artistic direction but also taking advantage of the networks and organizational capabilities that the Arts Festival team has at their disposal. Shelagh Magadza, who is the new artistic director of the Arts Festival, has done a fantastic job in gathering a wide range of people’s opinions around what the festival represents and where it can go in the future.
How did you pull together the program for the Opera House session? What were you trying to do? What is your aim with the musicians you’ve selected/are showcasing?
My brief was to put together a sort of party night for the festival, and I guess they chose me because I do play with lots of different people in the music scene and cross a few genres. It was actually trickier than I imagined, as many musicians were unavailable or couldn’t do it for one reason or other. One person who I always wanted though to open the night was Estere. She is very young, doing some really fresh sounding stuff just with MPC and her voice. When I was about her age the festival director of the time, Simon Bowden, trusted me to put on a show at the James Cabaret and it was a huge stepping stone for me and I appreciate it hugely in hindsight. I wanted to give that opportunity to someone too. Well, I wouldn’t want that to sound patronizing, because actually I think she’s one of the most interesting musicians around in the country at the moment, regardless of age.
I booked Mara TK’s band, Data Hui, mainly because I like the idea of the link it has with the previous generation (the band also features his dad, the legendary Billy TK on guitar) as well as including one of my favourite NZ musicians, Riki Gooch on drums.
Wellington has lots of larger bands and I wanted that represented as well as something with a clearer jazz edge than the first two acts I’ve mentioned. I also think Economy Records has been probably the most important musical phenomenon in Wellington music in the last little while, so I went about booking one of those bands. Alas, with Lord Echo currently exploring the New York jungle and The Yoots being on hiatus/possible retirement I was forced, against my will and sense of justice to book my own band Shogun Orchestra. We are a 10-piece group that does kind of Afro-Funk/world jazz.
Frank Zappa famously put it that jazz isn’t dead it just smells funny – how evolved do you think local jazz is? There’s a wide program of events in just a couple of days for this year’s festival – do you see it as being very much the something for everyone approach? And how frustrating is the stigma that jazz has?
For too long jazz in Wellington has been a bunch of guys in the corner of a café or corporate function noodling away playing quiet background music and not saying boo to a goose. In the end I think a lot of people just switch off, or even worse just get slightly irritated by it. And I confess, I have often been involved in these sorts of situations in the past. I think guys like Adam Page and John Rae have been great for the local scene, in that they come from overseas cultures where that doesn’t exist and they’ve refused to submit. They have the ability to turn even a little gig in say, Havana, into a show, an event, a night out which people come and get excited about. It’s been informative for the rest of us, and we need to rise to that challenge too.
The festival is a chance to take our collective creative forces to a higher level, have it exposed on a bigger stage. I have no problem with the “something for everyone” approach. It’s inclusive. It’s about community, trying to make it the best we can. Wellington musicians tend to empathize a lot, with themselves, with their audiences. Sometimes too much! But I’d rather that than the other way around.
As for a jazz stigma…well every genre has a stigma depending on who you talk to. Jazz has always been dying and then coming back to life in a different form, ever since word go, and that’s what Zappa was talking about. Jazz, as a global thing, is in a strange space, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. The American jazz academy system has a fair amount to answer for. It puts technical virtuosity on too high a pedestal, and as a result contemporary jazz can often sound homogenous, depoliticized and lacking in passion and soul. Luckily, in Wellington I believe the benefit of being so isolated is that we don’t necessarily feel the need to buy into that approach. The diversity of the festival reflects those ideas. There’s definitely room for purists, but most of us aren’t!
What have you been working on musically yourself across the last few months? Where is your focus in terms of performing/writing/recording?
Since I got back to NZ three years ago I’ve primarily worked on two projects. I formed a band called The Troubles which is an acoustic jazz group and we released an album on Rattle Records. I’ve since left that band to their own devices, but they continue to play down at Meow every Sunday.
My other creative focus has been Shogun Orchestra. I was away for six years, doing strange things like touring India doing music for a clown troupe, writing music for a musical in Haiti based on Animal Farm, travelling throughout South East Asia, Brazil and Africa and catching weird tropical diseases like malaria. When I got home I wanted to have a band that reflected those experiences. I wanted it to be about community and the people I knew. Some songs are folk songs that were taught to me, others are things I have composed about people or places. It’s sort of world music, but it’s far from being the pastiche that that implies. As I said, it’s about community, and when I got home I reconnected with my musical community and I asked them to interpret the music the way they wanted to play, not trying to emulate musicians from Africa or the Caribbean.
In the past I would admit that a lot of my music has been a bit inaccessible to the general public, but this project seems to have struck a nerve and we also had our music put out on vinyl in Germany. I really intended it to be joyous, as well as mysterious and exotic, and not taking itself too seriously. We are recording our second album at the moment which will be called Black Lotus, and it’ll be out in spring. I’m very lucky to have people like Toby Laing and Mike Fabulous working with me on this, people who are great friends and have what I consider to be something of a golden touch. It makes up for the slightly leaden one that plagues me from time to time.
Other than that, a fair amount of my time is taken up playing horn for the Black Seeds, which is about to embark on its third world tour in only two years. They are mighty hard workers and fine fellows to tour with. I also put some flute on the last Phoenix Foundation album, and just played in a concert with Orchestra Wellington. I enjoy playing different types of music, seeing different perspectives of the music world, and I’m proud of my work in all those different contexts.
Who do you think is un(der)sung in the NZ jazz scene. We have some world class players – who you think we need to see and hear more from? Who do you think deserves a shot at the world stage?
Jonathan Crayford, Anthony Donaldson, John Bell, Jeff Henderson, Neil Duncan, Patrick Bleakley, Chris O’Connor are guys who don’t roll over when things get tough. Each in their different way, and if playing in the context which suits them, have the musicality and skills to foot it with anyone internationally. If you were being slightly loose about the term jazz you’d put Riki Gooch and one or two others in there too.
Up in Auckland there are certainly some fine players as well, and Roger Mannins is doing a lot for the scene there. Then we have of course Nathan Haines, who deserves total respect for being probably the only household jazz name NZ has ever had. I’ve often found his music a bit patchy though. I like the direction he was going in with The Poet’s Embrace, sort of Coltrane-ish but he has a sort of soft, sentimental touch which is more reminiscent, in flavor anyway, of Stan Getz. Unfortunately the last album is on the cheesier side of fromage. But when his motivations are pure music he has a quality that none of the rest of us can touch.
The trouble with getting to the world stage for any of us is that, the festival aside, we have no serious local stage. And I mean NZ music in general, not just jazz. There are serious problems with infrastructure. In a place like France for example, every small town has a theatre or a music venue which is being subsidized by the local council. There is little public money for music in NZ but even when there is, there is a tendency to direct it at one off projects, which struggle anyway because there’s not really anywhere to perform. Between classical music and the money that gets put into commercial radio/TV music in the hope that we produce the next Justin Bieber, there’s not much for the rest. And yet that’s where the majority of gigging musicians reside.
With Shogun Orchestra we played at Warren Maxwell’s fantastic new venue, King St Live in Masterton over the weekend. The government should pay Warren to set up 20 such venues in towns around New Zealand, using King St as the model. Then they should give the man a knighthood. If you had venues like this in all small towns then the quality of music and musicians would get exponentially better. We musicians wouldn’t be so keen to get out and live in other countries. Towns would be happier and more lively, the kids wouldn’t be out binge drinking on the sides of roads, they’d be checking out great bands. They could even lower the drinking age then, because people would be more stimulated and wouldn’t feel such a need to trash themselves. And plus you, Simon, wouldn’t have to write so many columns bemoaning the sadder aspects of NZ music culture!
What are you listening to currently that’s inspiring you?
I try and listen to all sorts really but lately I’ve been re-checking out a lot of 70s fusion, Miles’ On the Corner as well as Robin Kenyatta, Julian Preister and Mal Waldron. My Shogun stuff was mostly inspired by various African music, Mulatu Astatke, Ghanaian highlife, Dudu Pakwana as well as some Haitian kompas. I listen to local stuff to see what my peers are doing: Orchestra of Spheres, Ria Hall, Lord Echo and Jennifer Zea have been some of my favourite releases in recent times.
How important is it for the Jazz Festival to bring out internationals and include locals? Does it need to always have both components, to be showcasing the local talent as well as offering some big-name internationals?
It’s absolutely critical. It has to be about growing our musical community and our culture as a whole. The best thing for local musicians is to be able to play with international guests, and in the past the festival has done this with the likes of William Parker, Marilyn Crispell, Steve Lacy or Mario Canonge. It’s a hugely valuable experience.
Often, not always, but frequently it is the local acts which provide the highlights of the festival, because it is a special gig for us and we work extra hard for it. This shouldn’t be understated.
Outside of the show you’ve curated what’s your pick for this year’s festival?
I’m sure Chucho Valdes will be fun, as will Jennifer Zea for those that are inclined towards Latin music. I think Reuben Bradley’s “Mantis” gig will be very interesting, and is probably the big one for the purist jazz fan. He has been working very hard at his vision over the last few years and I really respect his total commitment and determination. He has assembled a great ensemble and he’s playing some of the most sophisticated jazz in the local arena.
If you were taking along a person that had claimed to not like jazz or was weary of the idea of a jazz festival what event in this year’s program do you think would work best to sell them on the way the jazz festival works and what it offers?
It is a bit of a stretch to call The Opera House Sessions “jazz” so in that case I’d say come along to that. It’s more some top local musicians making creative, unique music which fits a little outside the mainstream. The jazz festival has always contained things like this, and I think that’s great that it’s not too dogmatic.
Would you like to see a return to the week-long jazz festival? Is that something we can sustain?
I think so. I think it would be nice if it were a bit less condensed, more spread out. I also believe that maybe the big gigs could be better distinguished from the “around town” type gigs, which generally happen anyway. Maybe the festival could take place in one or two venues comprising of the international acts and a few selected local acts and then the gigs in bars and so forth could be more like a jazz fringe type idea.
Where is jazz going in NZ? Who are the key players and names that have done the heavy lifting? Who are the up and comers/the ones to watch?
Some of the names I mentioned before, Donaldson, Crayford, Henderson, Bell, Manins, Haines, Bradley. These are the guys creating a body of work which will stand up in time.
Of the younger players I would say Myele Manzanza and Lex French are two players in their 20s who are frighteningly good. Myele is a hard-hitting drummer with technique to burn. What’s more he’s shown real initiative setting up his own projects and regular gigs. He’s just quit Electric Wire Hustle but that would have given him some valuable international experience. Lex is currently doing his Masters in Canada and his trumpet playing has matured and developed exceptionally in the last little while. I get a sense from him that it won’t be long before he starts producing his own work too.
What is your philosophy behind music as a performance or performing art? What do you hope to give an audience as a curator/performer? And what do you hope to get as an audience member?
I believe in the power of intuition. It is difficult to trust oneself to the degree where you can play without hindrance or self-censorship. Slowly I think I’m getting there.
Artworks are a bit like messages in bottles; we throw them out to sea not knowing if they’ll be picked up or find the shore. I would rather follow my instinct and put my faith in that than be too calculating about how to be commercially or even artistically successful.
In this sense when it comes to audience, we have to trust our gut. Most of us know when we have done everything we can to make the best music possible, to get the right balance of preparation and spontaneity. If we get it right, feel like we haven’t been lazy in any area of the music and how it is presented, then if people still don’t like it…too bad!
And as an audience member this applies in the same way. Music needs thought, but it also needs passion. When it comes together, everyone can tell.