Fever’s Candlelight Jazz Standards with Retro Pack at Wellington’s Public Trust Hall

Retro Pack at the Public Trust Hall
Andrew London (guitar); Kirsten London (bass and vocalist); James Tait-Jamieson (saxophone); Lance Philip (drums); and April Phillips (vocalist). 

Public Trust Hall, Stout St, Wellington

Wednesday 21 July, 2021

Jazz is a polarizing genre. For aficionados, it’s all about innovation, pushing the boundaries, expanding the genre whilst respecting its traditions. Technical skill is prized, but always in the service of new ideas. For your average classical concert-goer, it’s pretty much a mystery, and sometimes incomprehensible.

But everyone loves a jazz standard. Jazz musicians know them inside out and sometimes reference them on their way to something else. Every Wellington Jazz Festival includes two or three gigs that incorporate standards in some way – this year Whirimako Black performed ‘Cry Me a River’ and’ Summertime’ alongside traditional Tūhoe waiata, while Ruth Armishaw channelled Ella Fitzgerald at Cable Top.

This concert of jazz standards by candlelight, presented by Fever Original, was commercially well judged. There were two concerts on the same night. I went to the 6.30 pm concert, and the Public Trust Hall was almost full. The audience was pretty mixed in age – from RNZ Concert to the Rogue and Vagabond crowd. Someone had done a great marketing job.

The quintet, billed as the Retro Pack (an indication to expect some Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin), wore dinner suits with bow ties or sparkly dresses. The volume was on the low side for a jazz concert, so it was perfectly comfortable for a non-jazz audience. And the stage area was marked by a bank of electric candles, flickering pleasantly.

Of the members of the Retro Pack, only James Tait-Jamieson (saxophone) and Lance Philip (drums) were familiar to me. Lance Philip has taught percussion in the jazz programme at Massey since the early 1990s and now at NZ School of Music. James Tait-Jamieson is a Massey graduate in saxophone who has also spent time on cruise ships. Lance plays all around town and is always excellent; Tait-Jamieson is a good sax player. The ones I didn’t know were Andrew London, guitar (ex-Hot Club Sandwich); Kirsten London, bass; and April Phillips, vocalist. The Retro Pack goes back to 2002, and the line-up has been remarkably constant over the years, though April Phillips seems to be a recent addition. She is billed elsewhere as a ‘singer, actress, playwright and movie-maker’. She researched, scripted, and delivered all the song intros, and did much of the singing.

The repertoire was, as promised, jazz standards, from the 1920s to the 1960s. The programme began with ‘Summertime’ from Gershwin’s groundbreaking opera Porgy and Bess, but there was no hint of the stage production in this version, just a tasteful cover version that showed off April Phillips’s low notes, with lovely vibrato. She had a nice duet with the saxophone, subtle, tasteful, understated, and all too short. And that was how the show went. The bass player took the vocals for Jerome Kern’s ‘Can’t help lovin’ that man’, with harmonies from the guitarist and lead vocalist, and another short sax solo.  I felt that the key was too low for Kirsten London, who has a pleasant, untrained voice; and I felt the same about the other songs she sang, Peggy Lee’s ‘It’s a Good Day’ (livened up with close harmonies from the others) and ‘Why don’t you do Right’ (with the sax solo providing some heat).

I would have preferred to hear more from April Phillips, who has a wider vocal range, and offered more colour and more power, with a gorgeous lower register. But that is a minor quibble.

April Phillips was a dab hand at suggesting whose version of a well-known song she was channeling. She did Ella Fitzgerald’s version of ‘Cry me a River’, and Ella’s version too of ‘Night and Day’ and ‘Witchcraft’, but the Billie Holliday version of ‘The Man I love’, complete with Holliday’s choppy phrasing and asthmatic in-breaths. It was subtle, and would have provided reassurance to someone less familiar with the repertoire than me. Andrew London did a couple of great Louis Armstrong covers, ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’ and in ‘Mack the Knife;’ where the vocals were shared around, and he provided the Satchmo growl. Even Tait-Jamieson got in on the act, in his pleasant light baritone, doing a passable Frank Sinatra. The audience loved ‘Mack the Knife’, but not being a jazz audience, they left their applause until the end of the song.

It was all a bit too tasteful for me, I’m afraid. There is a terrific singer inside April Phillips who barely got allowed out – we had just a glimpse of her in Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day’. There were some classy tempo changes. The sax solos were all well-judged and, I thought, too short. This is a polished act. But it wasn’t until the encore, a Cuban number made into a hit by Dean Martin, that the band showed what they are capable of. A faster tempo at last. Lance Philip was even allowed a (very short) solo, and the higher energy swept the audience away into raptures. The welcome rise in temperature made me sorry that there wasn’t a Cuban set to follow.




Warm response for an innovative “Seen-and-Heard” Kristallnacht Concert at Wellington’s Public Trust Hall

The Holocaust Centre of New Zealand presents:
Kristallnacht Concert 2020

Music – Korngold, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Waxman, Weinberg, Toch, Rozsa, Bechet, Zorn

Excerpts from films with music  – “Robin Hood” 1938 (Korngold), “Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde” 1941 (Castelnuovo-Tedesco), “Rebecca” 1940, and “Bride of Frankenstein” 1935 (Waxman),  “The Cranes are Flying” 1957 (Weinberg), “None Shall Escape” 1944 (Toch), “Ben-Hur” 1959 (Rozsa), “It Must Schwing!” (The “Blue Note” Story) 2018 – various composers and artists

Musicians: Inbal Megiddo (‘cello), Jian Liu (piano), Jenny Wollerman (soprano), David Barnard (piano)
Martin Riseley (violin), Yury Gezentsvey (violin), The New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins violins, Gillian Ansell viola, Rolf Gjelsten ‘cello), Dave Wilson (clarinet), Callum Allardice (guitar), Phoebe Johnson (double-bass), Hikurangi Schaverein-Kaa (drums), Daniel Hayles (keyboards)

Concert presenter: Donald Maurice
Speaker, Holocaust Centre of NZ Chair: Deborah Hart

Public Trust Hall, Wellington

Monday, November 9th, 2020

I was surprised to find, upon arriving at the Public Trust Hall a good quarter-of-an-hour before the concert’s scheduled starting time, at least three-quarters of the seats already filled, and the queues still bringing people in – by the time I got my ticket sorted I found myself almost at the back of the hall, and was left wondering how I could possibly get from such a position a reasonably “filled-out” sound that would do justice to the performances.

I need not have worried, because the acoustic of the hall (a place where I’d never previously attended a concert) seemed by some alchemic means able to convey enough brightness, body and clarity of detail, even at a distance, to bring the musicmaking well-and truly to life. It was partly that the performers were such a stellar bunch whose “business” as performers was obviously the expert conveyance of the essence of whatever they were currently playing – but I simply had no qualms throughout the evening regarding any perceived lack of projection, character and personality on the part of any of the musicians. How lucky were both the concert organisers and we, the audience, to be able to enjoy such a “line-up” – and in such a venue!

We had been promised an out-of-the-ordinary kind of presentation this evening, along with the live music-making, one involving both the medium of soundtracked film, and the participation of a jazz combo paying its own tribute to a US record label called Blue Note, founded by two Jewish refugees in 1939, for which many of the great black jazz musicians recorded in the 1940s and 50s after being shunned by the more ‘establishment” record labels – we were able to enjoy a 2018 documentary film called “It must Schwing!” along with those clips from films whose soundtracks featured music written by those among the concert’s “composer roll-call”.

Concert host Donald Maurice began the proceedings by welcoming us to the hall, before introducing the chairperson of the Holocaust Centre of NZ, Deborah Hart. She spoke of the original Kristallnacht events and their commemoration by this concert, her words serving the purpose of reminding us afresh of the on-going nature of oppression fuelled by racial prejudice and cultural bigotry world-wide. She then thanked everybody, musicians and audience members, for their attendance and participation in this evening’s event.

Opening the presentation part of the concert was the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, firstly via an excerpt from the 1938 film “Robin Hood” for which he wrote the music (we were treated to the scene where Robin and his adversary, Guy of Gisborne, fight to the death, in tandem with the followers of both men similarly battling it to the end – the “separated” conflicts rather like contrasting individual instrumental lines in an orchestral work with tutti passages!) What a film! – still with the power to engage a good sixty years since my last viewing of it!

We then welcomed ‘cellist Inbal Megiddo and pianist Jian Liu to the platform to perform Korngold’s ‘Cello Concerto” a thirteen-minute long work itself written for a film “Deception”, and a piece that packs a lot of incident into its brief span. It was made the most of by Megiddo and Liu, who most surely characterised all of the piece’s contrasting episodes, the work’s “singing” quality being as well-rounded as the spikier, more agitated episodes were made sharp-edged and impactful. In a piece so condensed one felt almost cheated when the end came, so glorious here was the music and its making!

Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s “classic horror” contribution to the 1941 film “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” was then highlighted, followed by a performance by soprano Jenny Wollerman and pianist David Barnard of music in an entirely different vein, the same composer’s “Three Sephardic Songs”, whose text was Labino, an old form of Spanish. The poetic declamations of the first song betrayed its origins, with strongly-focused vocal lines and  ambient support from the piano, while the second song was gentler, expressed with a gentle, folkish walking-gait, and a beguilingly light touch. It was music that seemed to “entice” us into the countryside, the characterisations from singer and pianist creating a distinctively ambient world of expression.

Next we saw two contributions to film from German composer Franz Waxman, who famously wrote the music for the first full-length German film in the 1930s, “The Blue Angel”, but, on leaving Germany went to the US where he wrote many film scores, among them “Rebecca” (1940) and “Bride of Frankenstein” (1945) – the excerpts featured a range of musical evocations, from the romantic to menacing (Rebecca) to downright blood-curdling (Frankenstein)! An entirely different matter was his “Carmen Fantasy” for solo violin, here played with jaw-dropping virtuosity (what can a listener do but desperately cling to cliches when one is stunned?) by violinist Martin Riseley, with pianist Jian Liu hair-raisingly hanging onto the violinist’s coat-tails throughout!

Polish-born Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s music began the second half of the concert, beginning with excerpts from the 1957 Soviet film “The Cranes are Flying”, set at the time of the Second World War, the clips showing sequences with hugely contrasting emotions of love and despair, each conveying a different kind of compelling intensity. We then heard, courtesy of the New Zealand String Quartet, two movements from Weinberg’s Fifth String Quartet Op.27, written in 1945 in the Soviet Union, to where Weinberg had escaped (and remained) after the Germans invaded Poland. First came the opening “Melodia”, music which not surprisingly seemed to express uncertaintly and discord, a ‘cello solo towards the end leading to a kind of concourse of quiet despair. The Scherzo movement was, by contrast, a wild dance integrating quixotic and fiercely desperate passages with fraught unison passages sorely seeking a kind of liberation – very exciting playing from the ensemble, with an “over-the-top” solo violin part fearlessly presented by the Quartet’s leader, Helene Pohl.

Like most of the composers mentioned, Austrian Jew Ernst Toch left Nazi-controlled Europe for the US during the 1930s. He found some work as a film composer, though he also maintained his academic career as a teacher of Philosophy and Music in California, and as a composer of concert music. The 1944 film “None shall Escape” was a projection of the post-war trials of individuals responsible for wartime atrocities, Toch’s opening music there suitably authoritative, but a later excerpt was warmer-sounding, and more reminiscent of Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo. Pianist Jian Liu then played Toch’s Tanz und Spielstücke Op.40, the opening gentle and lyrical, the lines floating, and alternating as if “looking” for one another – the music gradually convinced itself it was allowed to “animate”, though it all remained very spare and unadorned, strange, gnomic music, the occasional impulse apart, appearing to “sit upon” its own character and not give anything away.

All of this was in stark contrast to the music of Hungarian composer Miklós Rózsa, whose fame has up until recently rested on his many film scores, but whose concert music is now achieving more frequent hearings – particularly renowned are his scores for the films “Ben Hur” (1959) and “El Cid” (1961).  We saw the well-remembered opening of the legendary chariot race from “Ben Hur” (suitably Respighi-ish in effect) as well as the dramatically-underlined confrontation scene between Ben-Hur and his boyhood friend Messala, when politics put an end to their friendship!  After all of this, violinist Yuri Gezentsvey and pianist David Barnard played a transcription of Rózsa’s music for the “Love-Scene” from “El Cid”, its sweetness and romance beautifully held in check at first, then allowed to expand and unfold with the utmost feeling – a beautiful piece of concerted playing!

Being  somebody whose knowledge of jazz could be summed up on the back of a postage stamp, I somewhat nervously approached the final segment of the concert, a tribute to the German Jewish refugee pair of Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, who developed a jazz label called Blue Note Records, a company dedicated to furthering the careers of non-establishment (usually black) musicians, such as Sidney Bechet, Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk, and later signing up and  working with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane and Quincy Jones.  Wayne Shorter called the “Blue Note” pair “The Lion and the Wolf”, bent on realising their vision of creating a platform for musical talent to express itself without prejudice of any kind getting in the way.

A film made in 2018 “It must SCHWING”, reputedly the motto of Alfred Lion, directed by Eric Friedler, made clear, in the excerpts we were shown, the positive feelings of people who were associated with these “glory days” concerning the leadership of Lion and Wolff, the family atmosphere they created, and the fairness with which the musicians were treated. Following this the jazz musicians came together to perform a 1993 work by American composer John Zorn “Shtetl” (Ghetto Life) taken from an album entitled “Kristellnacht”, succeeding it with a tribute to clarinettist, saxophonist and composer Sidney Bechet, playing his 1939 work “Blues for Tommy”.

To my uncultured ears, the playing of the members of the jazz combo was above reproach, the lament-like opening of the music they began with coloured by the character of each of the instruments, the clarinet mournful, the piano philosophising, the double bass dark and resonant, the guitar anecdotal and chatty – the clarinet sounded like a cantor calling the prayers while the drummer at the back jazzed and spiked the rhythms.  Together, the instruments generated a processional quality that I related to Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony (in particular, the “Frere Jacques” movement), before the clarinet suddenly skipped into “swing” which sounded not unike “Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider”! At its swingin’ height the music suddenly dissolved into more and more abstracted realms, with the guitar playing a chiming kind of ostinato, supported by the drums “kicking into” the same repeated pattern, and the clarinet taking up a kind of valediction…….for some listeners I imagined it would have been a truly sentimental journey……

It was left to Deborah Hart to thank us once again for attending the concert, and thanking also the musicians who contributed their services, besides paying tribute to the owners of the Public Trust Building, Kay and Maurice Clark, for their generosity in making the venue available to the Holocaust Centre – appreciative words which were readily supported by all in attendance at this remarkable and heart-warming event.



Festival Jazz at St.Andrew’s

Tessa Quayle Jazz Trio / Claude Bolling – Jazz Concerto

Tessa Quayle sings Jazz Standards with Ben Wilcock (piano) and Alistair Isdale (double-bass)

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace March Concerts

Tuesday 9th March

Claude Bolling – Concerto for Classical Guitar and Jazz Piano Trio (1975)

Matthew Marshall (guitar) with Anita van Dijk (piano), Paul Dyne (bass) and Roger Sellers (drums)

St Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace March Concerts

Thursday 11th March

That old cliche “A time and place for everything” came to my mind while listening to and enjoying jazz singer Tessa Quayle’s cool and laid-back delivery of a selection of jazz standards at a St.Andrew’s lunchtime concert. As much as I thought her singing, and the playing that accompanied her efforts from the other members of her Trio, thoroughly expert and professional, I found myself wanting more from the experience. Had Tessa Quayle chosen Cole Porter’s “It’s all right with me” as one of her numbers, I think I would have been able to put my finger on what was lacking for me at the time – “It’s the wrong time / it’s the wrong place….” I feel sure that the singer’s extremely relaxed and loose-limbed style and deportment would have worked marvellously in a bar or nightclub or cabaret or theatre, and, just as importantly, at night (or in a setting that suggested a nocturnal ambience). It simply didn’t seem the right ambience at St.Andrew’s for the songs to fully work on and be worked upon. In retrospect I felt the need for a more atmospheric and quasi-theatrical environment, with dim lighting, drinks and (dare one say it in these nicotine-unfriendly times?) a touch of cigarette smoke to create the appropriate mood for such music and its performance.

Jazz singing suggests a kind of generic style described by words such as those I’ve already used – cool, laid-back, relaxed, and so on – but given the circumstances and physical surroundings of the concert, I wondered whether the performers needed more than that on this occasion. Without the “trappings” the focus was very much on the singer, and, to a lesser extent, on the trio as a whole; and I thought their music-making, when put under such scrutiny, somehow lacked real intensity. Seldom during the performances did I sense the musicians were “transfixed” or totally absorbed by what they were playing – and, of course, I freely admit in relaying this impression the fault could well be mine through inexperience of this style of music and performing. However, I could imagine performances of these songs conveying heartfelt emotion across a range of feelings – and I suspect that this just wasn’t Tessa Quayle’s style. What she and her musicians did would have obviously suited some of the songs admirably; but across the span of an entire concert I couldn’t help feeling a sameness regarding the ever-so-noticeable detachment she brought to each song. Perhaps I needed to sit closer up, to give the visceral possibilities a better chance – though I suspect that such connection wasn’t what these performances were about.

The concert began with Sonny Burke’s “Black Coffee”, the singer a bit difficult to hear at first, though as “the pitch of the hall” was established, my ear became accustomed to her sound, enough to appreciate the agility of her wordless vocalising in “Bernie’s Tune” originally an instrumental by Bernie Miller. I liked “Autumn Leaves” with its high bass work and nifty exchanges between singer and pianist, and the ear-catching rhythmic irregularities of Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud” with its 4 versus 3 rhythms. However, I found myself wishing for a more gutsy, abandoned feeling from the singer in “Come on Home”, though I liked her similarly wry delivery of “Anthropology”, which she referred to as “Charlie’s Anthropology”, presumably by way of tribute to Charlie Parker. “Nica’s Dream” was notable for a marvellous piano solo from Ben Wilcock, but a real highlight was the duo “Come Rain or Come Shine” (Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer), the musicians free and flexible at the beginning, and generating real “swing” towards the end. Finally, there was the quizzical, sometimes declamatory “Moanin”, with its Negro-spiritual-like feeling, activated again by fluent and mellifluous piano and bass improvisations and easeful teamwork among the trio.

Perhaps one day I’ll get the chance to hear Tessa Quayle sing in a different setting, one in which she’ll more readily ignite those performance sparks which her amazingly rich and varied experience as a singer so far indicates she’s capable of. An enjoyable concert, then – but leaving less of an impression that I’d hoped it would. I confess to having fewer initial expectations from a second concert at St.Andrew’s involving jazz musicians, one involving classical guitarist Matthew Marshall and a jazz group, the work being Claude Bolling’s Concerto for Classical Guitar and Jazz Piano Trio. One of a number of “crossover” works by Bolling, written for classical guitarist Alexander Lagoya in 1975, it made an attractive if uneven impression on me, through no lack of committed advocacy from Matthew Marshall and his cohorts – like a lot of “other genres with classical” works it did best exploring its “own” territories, its jazz rhythms and timbres, and was at its weakest when trying to imitate “classical” styles and gestures (rather like Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and almost every jazz-inspired mix with classical forms ever since).

Parts of the work I found surprisingly involving and interesting, such as the first movement’s Hispanic Dance in 5/4, bluesy in places, Spanish in others (owing a lot to Rodrigo) – the blues episodes reverted to 4/4 in a kind of “trio” section, before driving back to the 5/4 rhythm, and just before the end “stressing” the patternings differently, to exhilarating effect. I also liked the third movement’s busy fugal scamperings, the instrumental lines nicely dovetailed before Anita van Dijk’s  piano “jazzes up” the patterns, inspiring the double bass (Paul Dyne) to take the lead, after which guitar and piano resume their dialogue, all very Bachian, with a nice rallentando ending. Matthew Marshall’s solo guitar work was in evidence at the beginnings of at least three of the movements, by turns improvisatory, and strongly rhythmic, each evoking a different kind of sultriness, then in the work’s finale, generating exhilarating pace with rapid scamperings, contriving with the piano to produce a “Saint-Saens” kind of ending, brilliant and flowing. Pianist Anita van Dijk skilfully recovered her poise after seeming to lose her way  momentarily in this movement, in time to support her drummer, Roger Sellars, letting off percussive firecrackers towards the end of the work, and with the others, gathering in and winding up the threads with a grandly ascending flourish.

Entertainment, enjoyment, and food for thought regarding music, times and places….