On Thursday night in Wellington - with the hardest pews in town and an icon of Ruth Bader Ginsburg adorning the walls - St Peter's Church added a distinctly spiritual element to the debut of three new pieces by Kiwi jazz pianist and composer Kevin Field that celebrated our common humanity.
The subtle use of melody and dense layers of harmonic and rhythmic complexity beautifully balanced out the buoyancy and fluidity of his quintet's approach to the music. Their initially edgy interplay evolved into an engaging conversation as the players started to stretch a bit, expanding and intensifying their dialogue through lengthy bouts of pure improvisation. There was enormous sense of intimacy and generosity shared equally and eagerly among the musicians, while their technical dexterity and flexibility brought a dynamic range and breadth of contrast that imbued Field's music with immense warmth and clarity.
In collaboration with bassist and composer Matt Penman and once again featuring an ensemble of outstanding musicians, including Haines (tenor and soprano saxophone), Cameron McArthur (bass), Lewis McCallum (bass clarinet), Keith Price (guitar), and the effervescent Stephen Thomas on drums, Field performed a highly atmospheric set dedicated both to New Zealand and New York. The opening piece - "High Canes Drifter", from Soundtology - took its title from an episode of the US sitcom Frasier in which he complains about his loud, guitar-playing neighbour Freddie Chainsaw, who has sold five million records, despite only knowing two chords.
Field then premiered a suite of three new compositions for the appreciative audience, inspired by the discipline and resilience that Aotearoa has demonstrated during these turbulent times. "Turangawaewae" (Place Where One Belongs Through Kinship) was a tribute to Aotearoa as the country in which Field and Penman grew up and that shaped their early loves and careers. "Te Ukaipo o Te Puroro Tautito" (The Home of Jazz) was dedicated to NYC as the jazz capital of the world whose attraction and influence is felt not only by Field and Penman, but also by all NZ jazz musicians. "Mahi Tahi" (Working Together for a Common Purpose) represented the intermingling of the two places. Taken together, these three pieces signified that, despite current cultural, political, and geographical distance, the two peoples share common aim and values. Due to the current global travel restrictions and in place of the ability to travel physically, they not only paid homage to the jazz capital of the world, but also celebrated people coming together in the face of adversity. Humanity still has much to learn about itself.
"Amongst Thieves" was another new composition with harmonies based on Mode Three of the the Modes of Limited Transposition and featured McCallum's richly sonorous bass clarinet and the propulsive Steve Thomas on drums. "Quintus Maximus" was also taken from Soundtology and featured the exquisite guitar styling of Mike Morendi, while "Overture" explored bitonal harmonic structures with Lewis' bass clarinet this time intertwining with Haines' superb soprano sax. The set concluded with "Good Friday", a free-flowing and explosive vehicle for group improvisation, originally on Field of Vision and re-recorded for Soundtology.
Field has had a couple of major turning points in his career. One came when he was eighteen and realised he no longer wanted to pursue his classical piano studies to their logical conclusion, the other was much more dramatic. In 2008, Field's car was hit by a drunk driver, his lung collapsed, and he spent a week in hospital recuperating - “headlights coming towards me, that whole thing” - as he explained in an interview with Graham Reid four years later (from which the following quotes are all taken).
“It was an eye-opener and in some way you feel, 'I was spared and shouldn't waste my life'. Not that I was. But as soon as I got out of hospital I went round to Nathan Haines' place and was playing in his home studio …and that track ... is "Cousin Morphine", because I think I was still feeling the effects.” That short and dreamy piece opens with a hauntingly distant siren call and continues to develop with long, languid, yet disciplined melodic lines.
Now a senior lecturer in Jazz Studies at the University of Auckland, Field holds a doctorate in musical arts for research into the development of new and innovative approaches to jazz improvisation and composition. He has performed concerts in the UK, USA, and Australia, as well as being featured on over forty albums, including five that achieved award-winning status. His distinctive and innovative approach to harmony is perhaps the most recognisable element in his both his improvised playing and written compositions, as well as his penchant for collaborating with artists from different genres and backgrounds.
Field's hardge-edged compositions have won over an international audience with broadcasts in Australia, UK, Ireland, USA, Denmark, Netherlands, Singapore, Japan, Norway, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Israel, and the Czech Republic. He is also the musical director of The Alchemy Project, a twelve-member collective that re-interprets classic Kiwi pop songs from a jazz perspective, and is an accomplished keyboard accompanist for other artists, including vocalist Whirimako Black, on whose award-winning album Sings he featured as both musical director and accompanist.
Over the past few decades, Field has earned a well-deserved international reputation, having collaborated with some of the top names on the contemporary jazz scene, including Grammy-nominated guitarists Mike Moreno and Nir Felder, bassists Matt Penman and Orlando le Fleming, and drummer Charles Haynes (producer for such diverse artists as Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Marcus Miller, and Jason Moran). He has also performed and recorded with a diverse range of artists such as George Garzone, Will Vinson, James Muller, Obed Calvaire,Terreon Gully, Richard Hammond, and most importantly internationally-renowned saxophonist Nathan Haines.
Field's early career included collaborations with Haines on his albums Shift Left, Soundkilla Sessions Vol 1, and Sound Travels. In 2003, he released his debut album Dangerous Curves, which displayed his unique compositional approach within a trio format. A key figure in Field's career and work has also been Haines' bassist father Kevin - “It's ironic I teach jazz because I didn't have any formal jazz education at all. I had extensive classical training, but basically I learned on the bandstand and was fortunate that when I was pretty young I'd go to bars and hear a lot of older [pianists] playing. A lot of them were a bit alcoholic, but when they saw me they'd say, 'Oh Kevin, you sit in' and they'd go off to the bar. It was through that, people heard me when I was just beginning to play jazz. I hate to think what it sounded like but I had people who took a chance on me, people like [bassist] Kenny Pearson who gave me some of my first professional gigs … and then later on Kevin Haines and [drummer] Tony Hopkins. That was my jazz education. I was lucky. I was playing five and six nights a week and playing with people who were better than me. I learned a lot, not really through things they said but through observing.”
The FSH Trio's Irony (2009) featured Field on acoustic piano, alongside Canadian drummer Ron Samsom and German bassist Olivier Holland, while Haines also made a graceful guest appearance on two tracks. The collaborative project was released on Auckland's independent Rattle Jazz record label and featured compositions from all members of the trio, reflecting their diverse cultural backgrounds and wide ranging influences (Holland sailed to New Zealand from Germany in 2002 in a boat he built himself, while Sansom arrived from Canada in 2003). Having played together for five years, the trio have developed a unique musical identity, rich with intimacy, energy, lucidity, and risk and have become the rhythm section of choice for many other jazz artists.
In 2012, Warner Music released Field of Vision, another collaborative recording with vocalists Kevin Mark Trail, Rebekah 'Bex' Nabouta, and Marjan Gorgani. Haines once again featured on saxophone and produced the album, with strings arranged by Wayne Senior. Three years in the making, Field's first album as a leader also featured Puerto-Rican percussionist Miguel Fuentes and contributions from DJ’s A-sides & Chris Cox. Reviews were extremely positive, with Field of Vision receiving a nomination at the 2012 New Zealand Music Awards.
Field of Vision was produced by Haines and ripples with Fender Rhodes breaks and pulsating rhythms, with nods towards some classic eighties jazz-funk grooves, and Wayne Senior again contributing some superb string arrangements that supply a disco feel to the opener "Breadwinner" and light funk-with-romance on "Imaginary Friend", slotting equally easily into earbuds or clubland. It was released through Haines' Haven label and provided with high-profile international distribution by Warners.
“I didn't want to do another Irony so I was looking for something different and the new tunes being written were in a different vein. They were a move away from the acoustic, piano jazz trio tradition and so it grew from there. I spent more time on this and while some of the pieces were written six year ago, but most were more recent.”
Among the standout tracks was the airy "Ditto", which Field said would never have made it onto the album, if it had been recorded more rapidly - “I'm constantly writing tunes and they sit waiting for the right opportunity to come along and find their home. There's a tune I've written which will be on Nathan's new album which is more your jazz quartet tune. It's right for his album, but not for this one. And the song '"Need You" was something I used to play as a groove at Rakino's in about 2005. But [Nabouta] came up on the bandstand and made up words on the spot and after that it got a great audience reaction. But that was not right for Irony, so I held it back until the right album came along. When we got into the studio though we realised we only had one verse of lyrics which she repeats, so we had to write some more.
"Dangerous to Know" was originally an instrumental, but then I played the album to a few people and they said they felt it needed another vocal track. I thought about that, and that piece was one I was always a bit funny about, like an unloved child, and thought there were possibilities with it. So I played it to her and Chris Cox's programmed beat sets the whole thing up. I had a sense it would go with a more dancey vibe, and it's hard to imagine the album without it. Marjan is of Iranian descent and she has a great r'n'b voice, but it is different to the typical r'n'b voice and I've written a few songs with her.”
Field then reunited with Haines (who also learned how to perform on the bandstand from a young age) for the latter's The Poet's Embrace and Vermillion Skies, both released on Warner Music. The fresh and vibrant 2014 album Dog featured Roger Manins on sax, with Sansom on drums, and Holland playing bass. 'A List was released on Warner Music NZ in 2015. Produced at Brooklyn Recording, NY, it was a sophisticated collection of polished compositions with a wide range of influences from soul and funk to Latin and acoustic jazz, and the by now obligatory hint of disco. On his third album, Field was ably supported by some top-flight New York session musicians - Matt Penman on bass (a studio heavyweight who has featured on over eighty albums), Nir Felder on guitar, and Obed Calvaire on drums, with Clo Chaperon and Gorgani on vocals, and Miguel Fuentes contributing extra percussion effects.
No Dogs Allowed was nominated for the 2019 Best Jazz Album award, while his latest offering - Soundtology (on the European record label Timezone) -showcases Field's talent for tight harmonic and rhythmic innovation, again in collaboration with some of the most respected names in the world of contemporary jazz. Also produced at Brooklyn Recording, Soundtology featured two all-star quartet line ups: the first with guitarist Mike Moreno (one of the leading modern jazz guitarists of this century) and drummer Nate Wood, (best known for his work with the Grammy-nominated band Kneebody), in conjunction with bassist Penman; the second quartet featured Felder and Charles Haynes, one of the most versatile drummers of his generation. Rounding off the band was Orlando le Fleming, whose astonishing prowess on both electric and acoustic bass was displayed throughout the album. Soundtology followed a dynamic rhythmic pattern of musical tension and release, traversing a mix of genres that was both stimulating and engaging, reinforcing the connection between performers and listeners in an idiosyncratic and highly personal manner. As a leader, Field demonstrates precisely how his inclusive approach to composition and improvisation can foster a strong interactive ethos across the two quartets.
Field schooled himself by studying heavyweight hitters like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett, whose music he would listen to for months at a time and even transcribe. He highly admires the intuitive rapport Hancock developed with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, something he feels he and Haines have also established - “We trust each other and we've spent a lot of time together and grew up playing jazz together. We've done stuff live and in the studio together. I wouldn't say it is a predictability, but our ears are very tuned to each other in terms of general direction. I feel a real affinity with Nathan and he with me. We can take things in different directions at different times, but we don't really talk about these things unless we are recording perhaps. There hasn't been a lot of things written down. The thing about an album is that the music actually grows the more you play it.” The Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi was another major influence - “He has an amazing ability to play inside and a little bit outside, but they were related and he did it in a melodic way. I transcribed a lot of his righthand lines and it was how he twisted them and then maybe moved in a different direction and came back. I analysed them. I didn't want to copy him, but look at what the underlying justification was for what he was doing.”
Radio 13 thanks and credits Stephen A Court for all the images in this review.