A Mighty Tōtara Has Fallen

Richard Nunns and jazz

This review is going to be a little out of the norm for what I intend for this newsletter. This isn’t so much a deep dive into a particular album, but a retrospective into one part of an amazing musician’s career.

On June 7 2021 New Zealand musician Richard Nunns passed away aged 75. As we say in New Zealand: a mighty tōtara has fallen. Nunns truly was a mighty tōtara. A pākeha of Scandinavian and British descent he was a music teacher and jazz musician when he was first introduced to traditional Māori music and instruments in the 1970s when he helped build a marae (a traditional meeting house) at Melville High School in the Waikato. While Nunns is best known to the music community as a musician who specialised in traditional Māori instruments and music (taonga pūoro), he was at heart, a great improvisor in many genres, and worked just as much with jazz and pop musicians as he did with other traditional artists. You can read about some of those contributions with Moana Maniopoto and her bands the Moa Hunters and The Tribe here.

Even in the 1990s and early 2000s when actual music journalists were employed by mainstream media jazz did not figure promiently in many publications, and Nunns’ contributions to New Zealand’s jazz scene were not made as much of as they probably should have been (or as much as the jazz friendly journalists would have wanted). There are many (particularly younger) musicians and fans who are unaware that he recorded with quite a few jazz musicians over the years, certainly even I was unaware of the scope of his jazz collaborations (and that Nunns was also a jazz musician outside of his taonga work) until a few years ago when I started really researching the influence of Māori music on jazz in New Zealand. 

Nunns first recorded jazz collab was a live performance at the Wellington International Jazz Festival in 1999 with British avant garde saxophonist Evan Parker. The concert was recorded and released as the album Rangirua (which translates as to be ‘in doubt’ or ‘out of unison’), which can be heard here:

This collaboration is very much erring on the side of free improvisation rather than free jazz specifically- don’t expect anything along the lines of classic swing rhythm here. Taonga pūoro take the lead here, with Parker leaning into the minimalist, atmospheric approach that Nunns evokes. Parker does an admirable job in keeping up the timbral approach of matching or complimenting the various flutes, pukaea (shell ‘trumpets’) and percussion- a tenor saxophone could easily, and accidentally, overwhelm the subtle sounds that Nunns creates.

To the best of my knowledge this is the first time (and please someone correct me if I’m wrong) that taonga pūoro was recorded in a jazz type setting. It is particularly interesting to me that Nunns found his first jazz collaborator in a British jazz musician, rather than a New Zealand jazz musician. The jazz landscape 1990s New Zealand was split between fairly conservative MOR jazz and the new jazz-hip hop/electronica hybrids. Neither of those sub-fields were particularly conducive, at that time, to experimenting or collaborating with taonga pūoro. Then there’s the fact that there just weren’t that many other taonga performers then and even fewer would have been interested in performing taonga outside of traditional contexts.

The rest of Nunns’ jazz explorations tended to revolve around Rattle Records. New Zealand’s premier record label founded by drummer Steve Garden in 1991, Rattle has built its reputation on New Zealand chamber, jazz, and improvised music’s. It was the first label to take taonga pūoro seriously as an art form, rather than mere acoustic treatment.

The first of Nunns’ jazz collaborations on the label was another free improvisation album with pianist Judy Bailey (and with Steve Garden doing the treatments and arrangements). Recorded in 2004, Tuhonhono (The Weaving), is more recognisably jazz, though still very much at the avant garde free improvisation end of the scale. Where Evan Parker sought to blend his saxophone with the sounds and rhythms of the taonga pūoro, Judy Bailey seeks to support harmonically, giving Nunns space to play, but also moving through and around his space.

This album really signified the start of Nunns’ collaborations with New Zealand jazz musicians and composers, and over the next decade Nunns would perform on several more jazz or jazz inspired albums on the Rattle label. Each collaboration found him in a different setting. Listening to the albums in order to write this (and at some point, I’ll do proper deep dives into most if not all), you hear Nunns in large and small ensembles, and improvised and composed settings. The albums showcase both his versatility as a jazz musician, and of taonga pūoro as instruments deserving of thoughtful artistic treatments outside of their traditional settings (at a time when there was still a big risk that they would be trivialised or tokenised).

The scope of Richard Nunns’ music making truly is astounding: traditional settings, pop music, classical music, and jazz. To make things slightly more daunting for the rest of us, he was also a secondary school music teacher until 2000, so only the last 17 years of his career were as a fulltime professional musician (he retired in 2017 after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease). But in those 17 years he amassed a concert itinerary and discography that is the envy of many hard-working musicians. Through this work he was, for a time, one of the most visible taonga performers in New Zealand, and he used that visibility to help champion the cause for a renaissance of performing and of making these beautiful instruments. These days there are quite a few visible taonga pūoro performers around the motū, and they perform in a wide variety of settings and genres. While there is still a way to go for the normalisation of taonga pūoro in the New Zealand music scene, it has come a long way already thanks in part to the visibility of Richard Nunns. Truly a mighty tōtara has fallen. RIP Richard Nunns 1945-2021.