Saxophonist Lucien Johnson wins major jazz award
Lucien Johnson (publicity photo)
New Zealand saxophonist Lucien Johnson has won the Best Jazz Composition prize in the APRA AMCOS Jazz Awards for Blue Rain from his Wax///Wane album.
The awards are New Zealand's premier jazz awards and Johnson was also shortlisted in the Best Jazz Artist category following international praise for Wax///Wane, which was released in Europe on April 1.
The saxophonist, who spent much of his twenties living and working in and out of Paris, put together a set of compositions that reflect the natural surroundings of his life by the sea but also contain the energy and urgency of city living.
Setting his tenor saxophone in an intriguing line-up – vibes, harp, bass, drums and percussion – enabled Johnson to capture the dream-like quality he wanted to convey. It also harks back to one of the many musical experiences – playing with Ethiopian jazz pioneer Mulutu Astatke - that have come his way as a result of leaving New Zealand for Europe as a twenty-two-year-old with no contacts and just a smattering of high school French.
“If you come from New Zealand, when you’re young anywhere else seems extremely exciting and desirable,” he says. “I talked myself into an English teaching job in Paris and stayed with a friend of a friend for a few days, then was in some hostels before finding a flat in the 11th arrondissement. My French was really bad but after a year or so it got much better and before long I was fluent.”
As he started to meet people, Johnson, who grew up in a musical family, was able to find work as a musician. He played in brasseries and gravitated towards theatre work, including a clown troupe, with whom he toured India. Another theatre gig took him to Haiti, where he spent four months and contracted malaria but also got to play with voodoo drummers.
Back in Paris he started to mingle with American and Japanese musicians, hanging out with drumming legend and long-time Paris resident Sunny Murray, pianist Bobby Few and saxophonist Steve Potts and playing in drummer John Betsch’s band. The brilliant Japanese drummer Makoto Sato introduced Johnson to free jazz bass titan Alan Silva, of Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and Albert Ayler fame, and they formed a trio, going on to record the album Stinging Nettles.
“Playing and recording with a musician of Alan’s stature was a real honour for me and meeting and gaining the respect of these American players who were of the 1960s and 1970s generation who had settled in Paris was amazing,” he says. “But it was often a struggle to pay the rent and after six years, I decided to return home.”
In Wellington he joined a band that toured the U.S. and Europe every year and got a taste of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. He then completed a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at Victoria University and went on to compose music for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the New Zealand Dance Company while making music under his own name. His album West of the Sun, which was released on Japanese label Wonderful Noise, was shortlisted for New Zealand’s Jazz Album of the Year title in 2017.
Johnson’s travels and experiences led to him becoming the go-to musician for festival collaborations back home, which is how he came to work with pianist Marilyn Crispell and bassist Barre Phillips, and with Mulatu Astatke, both in Wellington and Addis Ababa.
Wax///Wane, he says, is the first album he has made in a really mature musical style and he’d like to think it marks the beginning of being able to concentrate exclusively on making his own music.
“I definitely chose the harp and the vibraphone for a reason,” he says. “For me, these instruments invoke, perhaps better than any other, the feeling of dreams. That's why composers like Debussy and Ravel liked the harp. The vibraphone can do that too when you use it with pedal and tremolo. The vibes give Mulatu's music a sense of mystery and one of my favourite Miles Davis albums, Blue Moods, gets this spacious, mysterious feeling with the vibes, as does Archie Shepp's New Thing at Newport with Bobby Hutcherson.”
The Wax/Wane instrumentation is one he would like to record with more and he feels there is more to explore in creating music that reflects the weather – winds and storms contrasting with blue skies – and the flora and fauna of the coast where he lives.
“It's a very different experience from, say, living in New York and going head-to-head with jazz virtuosos every night of the week,” he says. “My music probably doesn't have the same technical complexity as a lot of the music that is made in that context, but I do believe it has a certain level of emotional nuance nonetheless, and a feeling of mystique.”
Lucien Johnson’s Wax///Wane is available on Bandcamp and all major streaming services.
Guitarist's debut album hits the spot
Tom Stephenson (photo by Morgan Shaw)
When guitarist Tom Stephenson’s trio released their first album, Perfect Circle, at the beginning of April, they had mixed feelings about it.
The possibility of hearing their music on the radio excited them. On the other hand, they were slightly wary about what reviewers might make of the third album release in as many months by students and former students of the jazz course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow.
Pianist Fergus McCreadie had launched his second album, Cairn, and saxophonist Matt Carmichael his first, Where Will the River Flow, to five-star reviews in prestigious publications such as Mojo and BBC Music Magazine.
Tom, aware of the star quality and attention that McCreadie and Carmichael had garnered through their student years, thought Perfect Circle might suffer by comparison.
He need not have worried. The influential website London Jazz News and BBC Radio Scotland’s popular Jazz Nights programme were quick to praise Tom’s compositions and the trio’s musicianship and radio presenters from Canada to Italy have turned the opening track, The Sun’s Hat into something of a minor turntable hit.
The strong rhythmic pulse that is a feature of Perfect Circle has a Courier heartland connection. Drummer Greg Irons grew up in St Michaels where he was encouraged to take an interest in music generally and jazz in particular by his parents. His dad, Kenny is a bass player who has gigged across Scotland for over thirty years and his mum, Ruth for some years organised and administrated the jazz school run by long-time Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra director Richard Michael.
Father and son actually formed the rhythm section on occasion for the Sunday afternoon jazz sessions run by guitarist Kevin Murray in Clarks Bar in Lindsay Street before Greg went off to study at the conservatoire in Glasgow.
“My dad used to play me these albums that had great drumming on them and it turned out that he’d seen the musicians involved in Dundee,” says Greg. “There seems to have been a time around the 1980s when not just great drummers like Billy Cobham and Alphonse Mouzon but top guitarists like Mike Stern played concerts in Dundee. Obviously I missed out on that but hearing about it was exciting and probably contributed towards me wanting to become a musician.”
Tom’s back story is different. He was going nowhere at school in his hometown, Darlington, and becoming quite disillusioned with academic expectations when a friend suggested he should take up the guitar.
“I immediately felt a new sense of purpose,” he says. “At first I listened to blues records and players such as Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Within a relatively short time, however, I was dedicating myself to learning a broad range of musical styles.”
This can be heard on Perfect Circle where country, rock and gospel music influences blend in with the trio’s essential jazz qualities.
In 2015 Tom was awarded a scholarship to study on the jazz course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland under the direction of saxophonist Tommy Smith. During his time at the conservatoire Tom established himself on the Glasgow jazz scene and went on to play with established names including trombonist Mark Nightingale, trumpeter John Faddis and the aforementioned guitarist Mike Stern.
It was while they were all at the conservatoire that Tom teamed up with Greg and bassist Mark Hendry. Mark is also a composer and bandleader in his own right, having presented a commission for a twenty-piece orchestra at Edinburgh Jazz Festival while a student.
The trio has gigged substantially, including appearances at Edinburgh and Glasgow jazz festivals, allowing Tom’s compositions to strengthen and develop.
“Each tune on Perfect Circle was written towards the end of my studies at the conservatoire,” says Tom. “My goals were to express myself in an uncontrived manner and get in touch with what excites me about music on a personal level.”
Simplicity and directness are key for Tom, who is keen to play live with the trio in support of Perfect Circle as soon as music venues re-open.
“We haven’t played in Dundee yet,” he says, “but hearing about these concerts Greg mentions from the 1980s, it would be great to be part of that tradition.”
From The Courier, May 14, 2021
Rising saxophone star Matt Carmichael releases debut album
Saxophonist Matt Carmichael, like musicians everywhere, has barely played in public over the past twelve months. The set the twenty-one-year-old from Lenzie played in early November, however, reached as many people in twenty minutes as many jazz musicians will play to in a year or more.
Carmichael didn’t win the BBC Young Jazz Musician 2020 title that afternoon but just reaching the final of the competition and appearing on BBC Four in front of a nationwide audience fulfilled an ambition he’d had since his mid-teens.
“I remember watching the final on TV a few years ago and thinking, I’d love to do that,” he says. “I didn’t really think I’d ever get there, so it was kind of unreal to be standing playing in front of the cameras. It was also strange playing with musicians I’d only just met a few days before and I’m not sure I played as well as I could have done, but it was a great experience.”
Playing in front of a live audience numbering only a handful – the competition judges – was also quite unnerving. Matt left, though, if not with first prize then with the praise of musicians of the calibre of trumpeter and arranger – and chief judge - Guy Barker ringing in his ears.
He's since had a lot more praise from prominent observers as he prepares to release his first album, Where Will the River Flow on Friday March 12. Early reviews and comments from presenters on radio stations such as Jazz FM have enthused about Carmichael’s musicianship and the attractiveness of his original compositions.
Saxophone wasn’t Carmichael’s first choice of instrument. He took piano lessons for six months at the age of seven before deciding that the piano wasn’t for him. He has since revised that opinion and composes exclusively on the piano. Even the first single he released from his album, The Spey, a fast-as-fury reel that conveys the rushing quality of Scotland’s fastest river in full spate and sounds like a saxophone test piece was created at the keyboard.
He was, he remembers, about eleven when the chance to try a saxophone came up at school. After his brief interest in the piano, his parents might have been justified in being sceptical about his keenness for this new instrument. Depending on who’s telling the story – his teacher sensed a real aptitude in his young student; Matt’s version is that he was able to produce some sort of sound on it –the coming together was either a natural development or a fluke.
“I don’t think I’d even seen anyone playing the sax before,” says Matt. “I’m not even sure that I’d heard one played before either and I think my first reaction was, this is something different, it’ll be cool to learn to play.”
Group lessons at school didn’t bode well. Then, when private lessons were arranged with Allon Beauvoisin, the baritone saxophonist and brilliantly dependable backbone in Scottish horn quartet Brass Jaw and sometime saxophone section “anchor” for the Scottish National jazz Orchestra, Matt didn’t really appreciate the jazz his teacher let him hear.
“Allon was really nice,” he says. “He made me a compilation disc of Charlie Parker, Michael Brecker, Chris Potter and other saxophonists, who were obviously brilliant but didn’t really appeal to me musically for some reason. But then I heard Brass Jaw and there was this really soulful solo that Konrad Wiszniewski played on one track and I thought, that’s what I want to do.”
Improvising, he says, seemed to come naturally, although that didn’t make his first experience of standing up and taking a solo with the East Dunbartonshire Schools’ Jazz Orchestra any easier.
“I think I was thirteen or fourteen when I joined the orchestra,” he says. “I’d obviously never done anything like that before, so it was great to get a chance to play in a band onstage. But that first solo was absolutely terrifying. I was shaking. Of course, everyone in the band knows how it feels because your first solo – and everyone has to play their first solo at some point – is a rite of passage. But I didn’t realise that everyone else was shaking as they waited their turn too. Anyway, I got through my chorus, or whatever it was, and the feeling of achievement was amazing. I can still get nervous if I have to stand up and solo in an orchestra even now but I think that feeling of overcoming the fear makes you play better. The adrenaline maybe makes you concentrate more.”
It was while he was with the East Dunbartonshire Schools Jazz Orchestra that Carmichael heard a pianist on the radio who made him think, I want to play with him some day. This was Fergus McCreadie, the pianist in Carmichael’s quartet as it now happens, a serial award-winner who is currently earning rave reviews for his own second album, Cairn.
McCreadie was fifteen at the time and was competing in the Under 17 section of the Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year competition, which he went on to win twice.
“I thought his playing was so advanced,” says Carmichael, “and I couldn’t believe he was so young from listening to him.”
It wasn’t long before his wish to play with McCreadie was granted. Having joined the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland, Carmichael found himself in the same band as McCreadie and playing music that has become one of his main sources of inspiration as the English saxophonist Iain Ballamy took the orchestra through some of his compositions in readiness for NYJOS’ summer tour.
“Apart from Brass Jaw, I’d only heard American jazz at that point,” says Carmichael. “Iain’s music was beautiful and very European. It made me want to check out other stuff that I listen to now, the whole ECM Records thing for example. At the end of that NYJOS tour, Fergus came up to me and said we should play together more. That was fantastic to hear and he obviously meant it because we’re still playing together.”
Playing with NYJOS gave Carmichael easy access to the jamming sessions that were taking place in and around the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow and eventually he auditioned and was accepted onto the jazz course there. His course leader, the internationally recognised saxophonist Tommy Smith promptly invited Carmichael to join his youth jazz orchestra and has since gone on record as saying that Carmichael “is better than I was at his age.”
Once enrolled at the RCS, Carmichael took Fergus McCreadie up on his suggestion that they play together more. He invited the pianist to join his quartet, along with bassist Ali Watson and drummer Tom Potter, and the group is now an established unit.
“I wanted to have a band that kept a stable line-up because that’s the best way to develop the music,” he says, adding that as a saxophonist the onus is on you to form a band and look for work whereas drummers and bass players get asked to play.
He’s certainly gone about the bandleader’s job diligently. Before the pandemic brought live music to a halt his quartet had already toured the UK and played London venues including the hallowed Ronnie Scott’s club in Soho.
Carmichael’s own music, like that of McCreadie, has a very Scottish quality. Both musicians listen to traditional music, although Carmichael cites Irish musicians such as Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, the hardanger fiddle player who plays alongside the revered County Clare fiddler Martin Hayes in folk supergroup the Gloaming, as favourites as much as Scottish players.
“I think Fergus sees his music as folk music played with jazz attitude and technique,” he says. “He certainly captures the landscape in his compositions and that’s what I try to do too. When I wrote The Spey, Firth and Cononbridge, which are all tunes on Where Will the River Flow, I was thinking of these places where I spent the early part of my life. I haven’t lived there for quite a few years now but I still have a strong feeling for that area.”
Before the pandemic forced him to return to Glasgow, Carmichael was studying in Oslo on an Erasmus exchange from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the Nordic influence can be heard in another track on his album, Sognsvann. He graduates from the RCS this summer and is already planning his second album.
“It was a real pity that the Erasmus exchange had to end,” he says. “I really enjoyed Oslo – Sognsvann is named after a lake just outside the city with a lovely, peaceful atmosphere. When we’re allowed to go out and play concerts again, it would be great to take that tune to Norway. Right now, though, I’d love just to go out with the quartet and play the music from the album anywhere.”
From The Courier, Saturday, March 13, 2021
Thunderstruck helps take word of piping genius worldwide
When Gordon Duncan introduced his arrangement for bagpipes of the AC/DC song Thunderstruck at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1999, he was probably expecting to make mischievous ripples rather than waves that have washed up on four continents and inspired an international award-winning play.
An essentially shy, quiet man who had earned his own international reputation as a piper while holding down a job as a refuse collector in Pitlochry, Gordon was a self-effacing virtuoso. A journalist once described Gordon’s fluency on the pipes as akin to the great jazz musician Charlie Parker’s playing on the alto saxophone, only to be gently rebuffed by Gordon’s suggestion that the journalist stop being so daft.
It wasn’t such a daft comparison because Gordon took the pipes to a level of proficiency and expression up there with Dame Evelyn Glennie’ on percussion or Nicola Benedetti’s on violin. Not everyone valued Gordon’s ability to play on the pipes apparently any piece of music – or any musical scale – he could hear in his imagination.
His first album, Just for Seamus, was dedicated to a piping competition adjudicator who had responded to Gordon’s free-wheeling brilliance by saying that if this was where piping was heading, he wished he himself had taken up the fiddle instead.
Plenty of others did appreciate Gordon’s musicality and compositional flair, though. By the time he unleashed Thunderstruck, Gordon’s tunes such as Andy Renwick’s Ferret and The Sleeping Tune were so popular with other musicians and folk bands that they had virtually passed into the tradition, possibly the ultimate compliment for a composer in the traditional music style.
In terms of audacity, Thunderstruck arguably surpassed everything Gordon had produced to date, even his magnificent Pressed for Time. On first hearing, at that Edinburgh Festival concert in 1999, Thunderstruck appeared to encompass such staples of the electric guitarist’s art as feedback and whammy bar manipulation. Although signed off with a grin and a casual mopping of the brow, the performance itself was a tacit challenge to “follow that”.
And many have taken up the challenge. Go onto the internet and you will find Australian buskers playing Thunderstruck on bagpipes whose drones spit flames. There’s a version that marries dubstep and Indian traditions with Gordon’s inspiration and others that feature Spain’s Rondalla Santa Eulalia de Mos pipe band both taking it onto the streets and choreographing it extravagantly in a theatre.
And while the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, formed by a Gordon devotee, now retired, used Thunderstruck as a blueprint for taking rock music on bagpipes onto the international touring circuit with their bagrock schtick, possibly the ultimate tribute is to have the six times world champions, Canada’s Simon Fraser University Pipe Band playing Thunderstruck.
It was, after all, the pipe band arena where Gordon developed much of his boldness for musical arrangement. As the musical director of the vale of Atholl Pipe Band, while still in his teens, Gordon began to introduce the music and techniques he heard in Ireland, Brittany and Galicia into the Scottish piping lexicon.
Fife-born actor, and piper, David Colvin was a member of the Lochgelly High School Pipe Band when he first encountered Gordon. His admiration for his hero has led to him writing and performing in a play, Thunderstruck, that has now won major awards at the Edinburgh Fringe and at festivals in Adelaide and Perth in Australia.
David’s play, which was due to feature at this year’s Perth Festival of the Arts in Scotland before the current health crisis, tells the story of his own experiences in pipe bands (and contains language that, he concedes, follows the saying that “you can take the boy out of Ballingry but you can’t take Ballingry out of the boy”).
Gordon’s presence hovers throughout the piece, though, and David, who acted and played the pipes in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, is enough of a musician to play Thunderstruck towards the end.
“I’m not Gordon Duncan and wouldn’t claim to be,” he says. “The play wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t play the tune it’s named after but the reason the play came about was to try and spread the word more widely about this fantastic musician who was known around the world in piping and traditional music circles but is largely unappreciated by the general public.”
Winning a coveted Herald Angel at the Edinburgh Fringe last year for the play was a thrill for David as Gordon, who died in 2005, had been given the same recognition, as had Gordon’s father, the ballad singer Jock Duncan, and his brother, Ian, in his capacity as pipe major of the Vale of Atholl band.
“People who’ve been to see the play often say, Wow, an AC/DC tune on the pipes and it’s great that they appreciate what Gordon did with that arrangement,” says David. “What I hope they’ll go on to discover, though, is that Gordon’s audaciousness created a lot more truly fantastic music. He was an amazing composer and a real musical visionary. If Thunderstruck, the play, inspires people to investigate Gordon’s music, I’ll have done my job.”
From The Courier, Saturday, March 28, 2020