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Photos: Supplied / Image: Tina Tiller
Photos: Supplied / Image: Tina Tiller

Pop CultureJuly 18, 2023

Take a trip into the jazz multiverse

Photos: Supplied / Image: Tina Tiller
Photos: Supplied / Image: Tina Tiller

A pair of shows in Tāmaki Makaurau over the coming weeks showcase some of Aotearoa’s best new jazz. 

I’ve been hooked on jazz since discovering Louis Armstrong’s growly voice as a kid. And though I’ve grown up feeling like I must be part of a small group of New Zealand jazz fanatics, Nathan Graves from Jazz Auckland assures me there’s more of us than I think. In fact, “Aotearoa’s jazz scene is experiencing a resurgence of late”, he says. 

Jazz isn’t simply a musical genre – it’s a “creative toolkit” that musicians use to build their art, argues artist Arjuna Oakes. To Oakes, the main gadget in the jazz toolkit is improvisation, and the primary instrument in the toolkit varies from artist to artist because of how dynamic and diverse the jazz umbrella is. Because of all its diverse sounds, Graves goes as far as to describe jazz as a “multiverse”. 

Two gigs showcasing this multiverse are coming to Tāmaki Makaurau later this month, at Karangahape Road’s Neck of the Woods on July 22 and August 4 as part of the citywide Elemental Nights festival. On Saturday, July 22, Clear Path Ensemble and the Arjuna Oakes band perform alongside DJs Kenny Sterling and Hudge. The show on Friday, August 4 showcases The Lahaar and Phoebe Rings, complemented by DJs Carlotta and Hudge. Tickets to each show are just $25 – a rare bargain in this day and age. 

So who are these bands – and how do they fit into the jazz multiverse?

Clear Path Ensemble

Cory Champion (drums), Daniel Hayles (electric piano, synthesiser), Johnny Lawrence (bass), JY Lee (flute, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone) and Yunior Maden (percussion).

Wellington-based Clear Path Ensemble highlights the prowess of bandleader Cory Champion. He crafts the songs himself before inviting instrumentalists to bring the sound to life. Their first (self-titled) album debuted in 2020, and last year they unveiled their second, Solar Eclipse. Champion works with a rolling arrangement of performers, allowing him to showcase a dynamic array of musicians. For this gig, Champion notes, “it will be a new lineup with the same tunes”. 

Clear Path Ensemble’s sound is influenced by the astral, fusion, modal and spiritual jazz subgenres. It’s more “Herbie Hancock soul and funk fusion as opposed to jazz-rock fusion that you hear with Miles Davis at a certain period”, Champion explains. The band will perform both their albums, but “you’ll see the songs with a new type of energy that doesn’t come through the [recorded] albums. There is improv, tension and energy built in. It’s lots of drums, volume and intensity”.

The Arjuna Oakes band

Arjuna Oakes (keyboard/lead vocals), Harrison Scholes (bass), James Macewan (trumpet/percussion), Jo Jenkins (guitar) and Lennox Grootjans (drums).

Arjuna Oakes is one of the rising stars of New Zealand music. His success is a testament to his musicianship and that of his amazing band, including longtime collaborators Macewan, Jenkins and Scholes. “Expect a lot of solos and improvisation. I always give my musicians lots of space for their voices to be heard”, Oakes says. 

The band welcomes newcomer Grootjans (Dr Reknaw, Hummucide), replacing stalwart Sam Notman on the drums. Notman has headed overseas, where Oakes will soon join him, meaning this gig will be the band’s last show in New Zealand for a while. It will showcase Oakes’ entire discography, from his standalone EPs to his collaborative work and his unreleased album. Much of what they’ll play falls under the “funk-inspired fusion jazz” umbrella.

Phoebe Rings

Alex Freer (drums), Benjamin Locke (bass), Crystal Choi (keyboard, lead vocals), Simeon Kavanagh-Vincent (guitar, synths).

Crystal Choi, Phoebe Rings’ band leader, explains that they’re named one of Saturn’s rings. Not only does their name have an out-of-this-world origin, but their music also has a celestial sound. Although they primarily consider themselves dream-pop, Choi and Freer both graduated from jazz school, so “all our compositions are influenced by jazz”, notes Choi. She singles out January Blues as a particularly jazzy track from their EP. 

The band hasn’t played a show since January because they’ve been busy recording an album, Choi says, so Elemental Nights is a chance for them to “come out of hibernation”. They’ll play tracks from their EP alongside new music from the upcoming album. The August 4 Elemental Jazz gig is Phoebe Ring’s only planned 2023 show in Tāmaki Makaurau, so make sure to catch one of their radiant live performances! 

The Lahaar

Finn Scholes (trumpet, vibraphone), Henry Hicks/Horatio Luna (bass), Joe Kaptien (keyboard), Julien Dyne (drums, percussion), JY Lee (flute, saxophone), Matt Hunter/Kenny Sterling (percussion, keyboard) Lachlan Stuckey (guitar) and Mara TK (guitar, vocals).

The August 4 Elemental Jazz gig is the world premiere of The Lahaar live – “it should be magical”, says bandleader Julien Dyne. He laid the foundations for The Lahaar in Australia with bandmates Henry Hicks (Horatio Luna) and Lachlan Stuckey (Surprise Chef). Back at home, New Zealanders – including Scott Towers (Fat Freddy’s Drop) – helped finalise the sound before TK’s angelic voice came along.  

The Lahaar’s inspiration is varied, from proto-rap, disco, Jamaican dub, African legends like Kiki Gyan, Blaxploitation and Herbie Hancock jazz-funk. “The jazz element is embedded most obviously in the electric keyboard, sax, flute, vibraphone and horns solos – it’s a jazz-funk live experience,” Dyne says. He explains their performance will “recontextualise but faithfully reproduce the album”, alongside playing “quite a bit of Horatio Luna music and some Mara TK tunes” and lastly, some “African-disco or early New York rap disco” covers. The Lahaar’s live debut sounds like it will be a special show indeed. 

Both these gigs highlight what I love about the jazz multiverse, with each of the four acts bringing a unique and diverse sound that utilises different gadgets from the jazz toolkit. The July 22 gig is a rare Tāmaki Makaurau show for Cory Champion’s Clear Path Ensemble and will be Arjuna Oakes’ last New Zealand show with his band before moving overseas. On August 4, Dyne’s The Lahaar will have its live world premiere, supported by the celestial sounds of Phoebe Rings. 

Tickets for the July 22 and August 4 shows are on sale now. 

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