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New Zealand: A New Destination For Improvised Music?

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When one thinks of spots for progressive freely improvised music, New Zealand is hardly the first to spring to mind. But, believe it or not, the country has seen a recent upsurge and considerable growth in the scene, thanks to a small number of dedicated souls in the capital city of Wellington. This collective of independent artists, influenced by jazz, rock and experimental realms, have united in their quest for expression, as personified in the establishment of “The Space,” an arts venue that opened in September 1999. Jeff Henderson, musician / manager / organizer of The Space, originally put the concept together as combination gallery, performance space and message clinic. With a lack of resources or record labels interested in documentation, The Space now has its own label, Space CDs.

Space CDs is truly a DIY effort, produced (except for one release) as CD-rs, with sometimes spotty sound matching the (mostly) live recordings. However, the label is serving the important need of providing a habitat for all of this independent vitality. The six releases considered here constitute fine examples of what one might expect to see performed at the venue on any given day, covering the range of free improv, spacious sound exploration, humor and electro-acoustic splendor.

The first CD is from the collective Sync/Shed, which is best described as two groups in one, Sync, a duo of Alison Isadora and Jan-Bas Bollen, both on violin and electronics, and two, a quartet of guitarist Daniel Beban, saxophonist Jeff Henderson, percussionist Anthony Donaldson and vocalist Leila Adu. The six track program itself comes from a live performance at the Bomb The Space Music Festival from September 2001, where explorative forces and textural playing is the focus. “Ditch Digger,” for instance is a extended crescendo that features Henderson’s swelling notes over an eerie soundscape. “Clums” follows a similar plan, with a focus on electronics, as Henderson takes the driver’s seat on baritone. A highlight is the aptly titled “Evan and Maceo Swap Gigs,” lead by Henderson’s extraordinary soprano sax circular breathing exercise that, after several moments of electronic manipulation, evolves into an improv funk blowout. Improvised vocalist Adu plays an important role too, particularly on “Beat Ant,” where she interacts with Henderson’s alto and Sync’s violins over a percussive guitar/drums groove. Further, the eerie freakishness (in a good way) of “Square Peg” and “Bark,” provide evidence that this disc will prove of interest for the electro-acoustic folks that don’t mind an occasional groove.

The duo of multi-instrumentalist Agus Supriawan and pianist/saxophonist Jeff Henderson captures the pair in live and studio performances that contain a vibrant native element. First up is a sparse suling/piano duet that uses the spiritual/aboriginal sound of Supriawan’s suling (a flute-like wind instrument) against Henderson’s fragile chords. Henderson leaves the piano bench and picks up his alto for another spacious interaction with Supriawan’s kacapi, an exotic instrument that reminds one of the guitar, with the particular draw being Henderson’s deep tone. Henderson also utilizes the alto on the spirited collaboration with Supriawan’s Khendang, a percussion instrument. The final track is the sole studio interaction, with both collaborating on the Khendang, “Stones” and voice. It is less interesting than the previous, with a focus solely on percussive interchanges, although as a whole, this is an engaging collaboration between improvised and indigenous realms.

The tenor-guitar-percussion trio, The Slab, is the scene’s energy/noisemakers, especially evidenced by this set of seven tracks from a live performance at The Space during two separate years of the Wellington International Jazz Festival. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that percussionist Simon O’Rorke is truly that, a percussionist. Rather than utilizing a conventional kit, O’Rorke plays upright which gives him the extra advantage of being a colorist, just like the two other improvisors. In other words, O’Rorke avoids drum patterns like the plague, matching the scorching energy of Daniel Beban’s guitar or the ballsy verve of Anton Wuts’ tenor sax. “The Light of Ancient Mistakes,” the first cut, is a good example of this group’s M.O., a fiery exploration that has all three going full-tilt. It’s not all intensity, all the time, as “The Light” demonstrates, as well as the more melodically inclined “Infra Dawn,” a showcase for Wuts’ clean tenor over the bubbling drone of Beban’s guitar. Beban’s porcupine sounds are a thrill throughout, principally on “Airsphere” and “Resistance Is Character-Forming,” the latter also featuring Beban’s balloon work. Overall, their set focuses on skittish sound manipulation, noise and full-blown dynamism.

Also included in this overview is the sole “pressed CD,” The Slab’s studio encounter, Squeakspeak. The disc as a whole is less clattery and more introspective, with the studio setting allowing for the introduction of a myriad of percussion sounds (especially for O’Rorke, who shines here). The disc offers nine slices of mostly textural and very visual interactions, with the titles being rather apropos. Case in point is “Squeakspeak” a spiky trek and “Night Patrol,” a dreary landscape filled with guttural tenor and the scratchy guitar musings on “Scrape Scrap.” Those that enjoy their noise-centric sound will be pleased by “Conference with Silence,” a stop-start jumpy piece, although darkness ensures on the spacious “Freeze-Frame.” This one is a thrill (and perhaps preferred over the previous) for its spacious, ants marching, free improv journeys.

The Rubbernecks, on the other hand, are anything but subdued, rather humor and perverse music making are meant to challenge their audiences. The musicians, The Slab’s guitarist Daniel Beban and drummers Anthony Donaldson and Chris O’Connor, look at sound incorporation as a hell of a lot of fun, adding various percussion instruments and a combination of electronics to comprise their formula. This two CD set ( And I Got The Cunt In A Headlock and Live At The Space ) presents the group in its element, a live setting where all bets are off. While the combination of all of the above can at times be disorienting, it is a compelling mix, especially when they are in the middle of a textbook frenzied vamp. A good example of their concoction can be seen via “Out of The Saddle,” that commences with barnyard sounds, bell ringing, electronic samples and other tomfoolery that segues into the manic “Get Out of It,” with a vocal call and response that meets march time drumming. Other moments of intrigue include the heavy stomp of “Ruins” or the high pitched squeaks/metallurgy of “A Rusty Yoko Ono.” The second disc considers similar nutty territory, commencing with the Jazzy “Oily Rag” with the drums leading the charge and “Battle One” featuring the improvisors humorously improvising with what sounds like a Kung Fu video game. The rock sounds of “Luminous Fungi” or the sparse “The Snotty Nose” and the concluding, “Rubber Mantra” with the haunting looped voice, “every day in every way, I am getting better and better,” also keep the program both lively and unpredictable. This two disc set is entertaining, full of theatre, an amusement park atmosphere, percussive romps, electronics and a sense of perverse joy.

Finally, the Arc Trio’s Twice Thought is comprised of clarinetist Blair Latham, guitarist Joe Callwood and bassist Tom Callwood, for a collaboration that explores chamber-like settings, a contrast to the majority of those considered above. The program consists of fifteen tracks of freely improvised sounds that often contain fragments of melody that often invoke cinematic atmospherics. The sparse “Twice Thought” is a fitting example of what to expect, with flowing arco lines juxtaposed against the prickly guitar and sonorous clarinet in a slow moving dirge. Melodic exploration is also key on tracks like “Slip,” “Convex Two,” and “Black On The Blue Above.” The trio also explores the percussive qualities of their instruments on the see-sawing “You Turn” or the aptly-titled “All Talk,” with all three musicians interacting simultaneously. Perhaps the two strongest pieces are “Because It Was There,” driven by the bass ostinato and swing-like feeling and “Piece of The Puzzle,” with its unison guitar and arco lines over which the clarinet soars in a slightly ominous manner. It is a diverse, yet interesting set from three more talented members of the dense aggregation of Kiwi improvisors.

Website: http://www.thespace.co.nz/cd/


SYNC/SHED

Space 001
Ditch Digger / Clums / Evan and Maceo Swap Gigs / Beat Ant / Square Pig / Bark.
Alison Isadora (violin, electronics); Jan-Bas Bollen (violin, electronics); Daniel Beban (guitar); Jeff Henderson (alto, baritone, soprano saxophones); Anthony Donaldson (drums, percussion); Leila Adu (vocals). Agus Supriawan/Jeff Henderson
Improvisations 2000

Space 002
Track One / Track Two / Track Three / Track Four
Agus Supriawan (suling, kacapi, Khendang, vocals); Jeff Henderson (piano, alto saxophone, stones)

THE SLAB
Live At The Space
The Light of Ancient Mistakes / Infra Dawn / Scorched Ground / Airsphere / Resistance Is Character-Forming / The Memory of Running / Seastacks.
Anton Wuts (tenor saxophone); Daniel Beban (guitar); Simon O’Rorke (percussion)

The Rubbernecks
And I Got The Cunt In A Headlock/Live At The Space
Daniel Beban (guitar, toys, electronics); Anthony Donaldson (percussion, electronics); Chris O’ Connor (percussion, electronics)

ARC TRIO
Twice Thought
Twice Thought / You Turn / Slip / Drip / Black On Blue Above / All Talk / Convex, Too / Vanish In Point / Because It Was There / Mouthed / Piece Of The Puzzle / Ether / Concrete / Weggery Drive West / Etched In Skin
Blair Latham (clarinet); Joe Callwood (guitar); Tom Callwood (bass)

THE SLAB
Squeakspeak
Squeakspeak / Night Patrol / Scrape Scrap / Traindrops / Interference Pattern / Ratchet / Conference With Silence / Freeze-frame / Slide.
Anton Wuts (tenor saxophone); Dan Beban (electric guitar); Simon O’Rorke (percussion)


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