Reviewed by Jake Baxendale

Royal NZ Air Force Jazz Orchestra: Kaiwhakatere – Navigator

Reviewed by Jake Baxendale

Royal NZ Air Force Jazz Orchestra: Kaiwhakatere – Navigator

There’s probably nothing that rehabilitates the armed forces more than the military band – a place where talented people can make a regular pay cheque playing music – so long as they do it in uniform. The Royal New Zealand Air Force Jazz Orchestra has to be one of Aotearoa’s best examples of this notion.

An offshoot of the Air Force’s band, the RNZAF Jazz Orchestra is (despite the grander name) actually a rather smaller ensemble; consisting of 5 saxophones, 4 trombones, 4 trumpets, piano, double bass and drums. It’s a very capable big band, with many members drawn from Te Whanganui-a-Tara’s thriving jazz community. Following up on their 2018 release ‘Suites and Moods’, this new album (released on Thick Records) features all-original compositions. Mostly these are offerings from within the band, though Drifting by pianist Anita Schwabe is an exception.

‘Kaiwhakatere – Navigator’ takes ideas of travel or change as a loose theme threading through the titles. As with all instrumental music, this is a fairly abstracted affair. Opening Behemoth of the Bathyal Wastes hints at shoals of strange fishes and mysterious currents of the deeps in a short, elegant intro, with the saxes bubbling under a rather grand trumpet melody, then gives way quickly to a fairly traditional jazz ballad. The band plays the arrangement out nicely, before making room for an excellent solo by Louisa Williamson. A surprising lift in the tempo and a change to a swing beat is refreshing. The tempo lifts again for Cameron Robertson’s trumpet solo, and yet again as the feel suddenly switches to a ballroom rumba! These tempo and feel changes are reminiscent of the music of Charles Mingus, and it may be worth noting composer Michael Costeloe is also a sometime member of the tribute band The Wellington Mingus Ensemble.

The juxtaposition of well-handled classic big band idiom and surprising compositional twists defines the whole album. Trumpeter James Guilford’s View to the Sea fits the mold, with brooding, dissonant woodwind pads and a simmering rhythm section supporting an improvised trumpet intro that settles into a Basie-esque medium tempo swinger. Again, the band delivers the classic big band sound with aplomb. The dynamics are all there and the intonation is on point. Just when the tune appears to be wrapping up however,an exuberant collective improvisation surges out from the reprise of the melody – something you won’t hear on a Basie record, an unexpected and welcome shift.

Let’s Not Fall In Love features the voice of Stephanie Paris. It’s a sentimental ballad about the risks facing a platonic friendship. Deft little double-time sections help keep the mood light and a little humorous, as does the cabaret flavour during Blair Latham’s saxophone solo. Kudos to drummer Darren Mathiassen (better known as the drummer for Shapeshifter) who navigates all these time and feel changes with grace. Hats off as well to composer Seth Boy who also wrote the lyrics. A truly romantic soul.

Birds of Prey goes further into unfamiliar territory. Clarinets lead in a dense and tangled arrangement with a dark and mysterious flavour. There’s a couple of exciting back-and-forth improvisations between trumpeter Ben Hunt and trombonist Kaito Walley, and later Frank Talbot and composer Blair Latham, battling with their clarinets. Mathiassen briefly makes his own statement, again through a thicket of horn lines. It’s an ambitious, sprawling piece, again recalling Mingus, but at his most esoteric. However, there’s no direct comparison here, Latham’s compositions have a sound all of their own. If fans of big band jazz need a reason to put down Ellington and pick up ‘Kaiwhakatere – Navigator’, this might well be it. There’s newness to all the pieces, but Birds of Prey is strikingly original.

Drifting is well-placed in the track listing, offering a respite from the density of Birds of Prey. An elegant ballad in ¾ time, the treatment more in the Thad Jones/Mel-Lewis tradition, the piece was inspired by the Sam Hunt poem My White Ship. Common in sea shanties, 3/4 time can often give more of a nautical vibe than the more ubiquitous 4/4, however Hunt’s white ship is a metaphor for independence from his lover. It can be read as a rather cruel poem – a day’s drifting is all well and good for companionship, but the black night is no place for the “weak” lover, who presumably doesn’t have the intellectual and emotional rigour required for the journey, or would try to hold the author back from it. Schwabe’s tune, stately and melancholic, doesn’t seem quite so harsh; though a strident statement in the trombones leading into Leonardo Coghini’s lovely piano solo hints at this, as do a couple of moments in the tutti sections. Perhaps she has a more generous interpretation of the poem, or perhaps as the title suggests, we’re only present for the day’s voyage – the black night being a subject for another piece.

Royal Blue by Oscar Lavën is the most obviously Basie-inspired tune here. A fast-paced burner with a light piano intro, the saxophones, trumpets and trombones working as separate sections before coalescing for big send offs into the solos where Lavën, Costeloe and Kaito Walley all deal with the swift tempo admirably. The surprise twist comes right at the end, after the classic Basie finish, with some dramatic, almost Looney-Tunes-ish chords. A nice touch!

The album’s finale, Pigeon’s Reprise, is another Blair Latham offering. It’s as sweet and cheerful as Birds of Prey is dark and threatening. Again, the woodwind doubles take the lead, with flute and clarinet dueting the melody, occasionally dissonant, but keeping things pleasant. Latham’s penchant for the surreal comes through in their birdlike, freely improvised cadenza. A final surprise in what is overall a balanced meld of tradition and originality, all in a tightly delivered package. This will be a welcome addition to the collections of jazz fans as it stands up quite admirably next to classic big band recordings, and those who follow New Zealand music will get a kick out of the distinctly Kiwi amalgamations and quirks in the compositions.