words about music

I was recently asked to deliver an address to the Wellington Jazz Club at an event celebrating the contribution of Paul Dyne and Roger Sellers to the New Zealand jazz scene. Here’s the script.

Kia ora Katou. I was a colleague of Paul Dyne and Roger Sellers at the School of Music for close to twenty years, and it is a great honor for me to be invited to speak at this event celebrating the contribution Paul Dyne and Roger Sellers have made to New Zealand Jazz. It’s fitting that the Wellington Jazz Club is not only acknowledging Paul and Roger as significant members of New Zealand’s jazz fraternity, but it is also fitting that Paul and Roger are being honored together, in a combined event…
Jazz is a team sport, and I think that’s probably most clearly evident in the ways some rhythm sections find really unique ways to make music together. Jazz history is populated with rhythm sections that are now feted as contributing something important and quite specific to the evolution of the music: Miles Davis’s rhythm section in the 1950s with Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Jo Jones; the so-called All American rhythm section of Walter Page on bass, Freddie Green on guitar, Papa Jo Jones on drums and Count Basie on piano; or pianist Ahmad Jamal with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier; these are combinations of players who have collectively made an impact on the ways he hear and think about jazz. Sometimes commentators drill down to identify combinations of bassist and drummers who work together in wonderful ways: Ray Brown and Ed Thigpin, Eugene Wright and Jo Morello, Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland. That’s been the case in New Zealand too, and Paul and Roger have established a place of honour amongst jazz musicians for the quite magical ways they work together. Paul once told me – jokingly, I think – that Frank Gibson and Andy Brown were the NZ ‘A’ Team, while he and Roger were the ‘B’ Team. [Paul adds, ‘B’ for ‘Best’] I’m not really sure that rankings like that hold in jazz. What I feel more sure of is that particular groups of musicians can develop a collective identity that eclipses their combined talents: the whole is greater, in cases like those, than the sum of the parts. For my money, Roger and Paul represent such a combination of musicians.

They began working together in the early 1980s when Roger returned from many years living and playing in England and Europe, and Paul had recently returned from an extended stay in Canada. While away, both had played with some extraordinary musicians: Roger was a long-term member of Ian Carr’s group Nucleus, recording on a number of albums; he preformed and recorded with Ernestine Anderson, Neil Ardley, and, as house drummer at Ronnie Scott’s club, appeared with some of the excellent musicians who came through London during the 1970s – players such as George Coleman and Sonny Stitt. Paul worked with many of the fine musicians on the local scene in Montreal – drummers Alvin Queen, and Claude Rangier, saxophonist Billy Robinson, pianist Jean Beaudet – as well as with many visiting musicians including a week with Sonny Stitt.

Paul and Roger’s more or less simultaneous return to New Zealand was a great boon to the Wellington scene, and their arrival injected and energy and a level of musical sophistication that was an important fillip to the scene. Auckland-based jazz pianist Phil Broadhurst – someone Roger would have known from the UK – was quick to spot the potential such an outstanding rhythm section offered to jazz in New Zealand and he formed a quartet with them along with saxophonist Colin Hemmingsen. That group – Sustenance – recorded a number of radio programmes for the Radio New Zealand and those recording were licensed and released as albums for sale to the public. At the time – this was early to mid-1980s – what Sustenance was doing, along with the work of Frank Gibson Junior’s group Space Case, marked a significant moment in New Zealand jazz: original compositions played in an exemplary fashion by musicians who knew the jazz tradition intimately yet were sufficiently well equipped in terms of technique and imagination to propel the music in fresh and interesting directions. If a distinct New Zealand jazz ever emerges, the work of Paul and Roger during that period will be an important part of the picture.

Paul and Roger have played in many other combinations: I’ve heard them sounding transcendent with saxophonist Michael Brecker, playing unbelievably swinging jazz with Bruce Foreman, and producing some very beautiful and subtle music with Mike Nock. The album Paul and Roger did with Mike – Beautiful Friendship – is a copybook lesson in playing standards with elegance and personality. I think the two highlights for me, of Paul and Rogers work together as performers, are at quite distinct ends of the spectrum in terms of profile and notoriety. The first was during the 1990s when pianist Andrew Hill came to town and Paul and Roger acted as his rhythm section. Paul and Roger came out first and began to play before Hill took the stage. I recall not quite believing what I was hearing: the energy and commitment of their playing made me think I was in a new York club, they were playing as if their lives depended on their performance. The time-feel and energy was dazzling. Hill took the stage after a few moments and began to play what seemed like a whole bar behind them: it was bewildering and beautiful in equal measure.

A second highlight for me has been the opportunity to hear these two masters week after week playing with the Boptet in the Lido Café, just around the corner from here in Victoria Street. The music was never less than good, and sometimes it was sublime. I remember listening to the Boptet with jazz pianist and educator Mark Levine, who remarked, they may not be a New York group, but they really aren’t very far from it. And occasionally the music was better even than the kinds of performances you might routinely hear in New York clubs – performances that I guess are a kind of gold standard for small group jazz. I remember hearing the Boptet when it included Scott Towers on saxophone, Nick van Dijk on Trombone and Noel Clayton on guitar along with Paul and Roger, performing a kind of free rhythm changes to conclude a set. The intensity and beauty of the music saw the café become silent as the audience gazed on in rapt attention. The applause when the tune finished was thunderous, and it went on and on.

It’s not only as performers that Paul and Roger have contributed to jazz in New Zealand, and in fact it might be fair to say that their greatest contribution has been as educators. Both have taught at the jazz school here in Wellington since the 1980s, and between them have graduated hundreds of musicians who now populate the New Zealand (and international) music scene. While both have been very capable style and technique teachers, I suspect the most important lessons they have imparted to students in their charge has been a kind of jazz wisdom. Both understand that this music is about much more than notes and chords and scales and melodies; as important as those things are, they pale beside considerations like listening, feel, surrender, and love. Guitarist Simon Bowden once told me of his doubts before playing an important recital; when he sought advice from Roger, Roger said ‘Simon, the music is already in the room.’ What Simon was able to take from this, I think, was confidence that all he needed to do was to get out of the way, and then the music would happen for him, with him, through him. What Roger was able to help Simon understand, and it is the kind of lesson many of us have had from Paul, was that this music is not about technique or repertoire, it is about the adventure of being human.

Jazz guitarist Manny Abrahams once said to me ‘We’re all Paul’s children.’ I have to agree, but add that we’re all Roger’s children too.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Paul Dyne and Roger Sellers have made a contribution to New Zealand jazz and jazz musicians that is beyond reckoning. As performers, as teachers, as collaborators and as our friends they have left all of us who have worked with them with debts we cannot easily repay. But there are two things we can do. First, we can keep this music alive, we can continue to study and serve the music and seek the beauty that jazz offers. And second we can – as we are here tonight – say ‘Thank you Paul; thank you Roger.’

Friends, please join me in acknowledging Roger Sellers and Paul Dyne.

 

Here are a few thoughts on a Paul Bley recording. Paul said, after Ornette Coleman’s recent passing: ‘Ornette was the man behind the man behind the man.’

This is a review of his album Scorpio:

Paul Bley and Scorpio [1973]
Milestone M9046

Recorded during 1972 in New York, Paul Bley and Scorpio features Dave Holland on bass and Barry Altschul on drums and percussion. The programme comprises an original by Bley, and three tunes each by Carla Bley and Annette Peacock… Although these sessions took place only three years after Bley had begun his investigation of electronic instruments, he was to use electric keyboards on only four subsequent albums, and so in that sense this recording might reasonably be considered an example of his mature use of such instruments. By stacking the keyboards on top of one another, Bley was able to move between them (and their respective timbres) in real time, enabling him to draw on a startling variety of sounds over the passage of each performance. Fender-Rhodes and RMI electric pianos are combined with an ARP synthesiser and complemented by acoustic piano to complete Bley’s sound palette on this recording. Coupled with Altschul’s colourings (at the time he preferred to think of himself as an ‘instrumentalist’ rather than as a ‘drummer’, and to be sure, he’s one of jazz’s great percussive colourists) and the timbre of Holland’s (‘fuzz’ pedal) treated bass, Bley demonstrates his commitment to music as sound-sculpture. While some of the performances are clearly related to standard jazz procedures, others, such as Annette Peacock’s “Gestures Without A Plot” seem to be largely predicated by the timbral possibilities of the instruments and the musical possibilities of their interactions.

The synthesiser solo on Carla Bley’s “Syndrome” reveals Bley’s move to realms beyond the republic of equal temperament; passages comprising notes of indeterminate pitch, portamento and pitch bend effects, and episodes where the timbral complexity of the sounds disguises their relationship to any equally-tempered scale, all contribute to the ‘micro-tonal’ concept of some of this music. This had been an area that had fascinated Bley since his performances with Ornette Coleman, but was one unavailable to him as a pianist until his adoption of electronic instruments.

A complete marriage of Bley’s free jazz and avant-garde proclivities with his ideas of ‘music as sound’ is found on the album’s last track, a performance of Carla Bley’s “Ictus”. Almost all of the track’s four minute duration is taken up with very free improvising from the trio, much of it concerned with sounds and colours rather than with harmony or melodies. The interaction between the musicians is wonderful, Altschul in particular showing great adaptation, complementing and contrasting the music proposed by the bassist and keyboardist in an ongoing dialogue that features solo, duo and trio episodes. Following a passage of three-way collective improvisation late in the piece, Bley cues the melody, which is emphatically stated, and after which the final chord is allowed to ring for almost 10 seconds before the last few measures are reprised. Containing concise, spare melodies, timbrel variety, music outside the limits of equal temperament, free improvisation, group interaction, equality within the ensemble and harmonic openness, this track in some ways summarizes Bley’s artistic endeavours up to that point in his career, and signalled his willingness to allow all of the approaches he had used to coexist in single performances.