The Auckland Jazz Orchestra (AJO) was formed by Mike Booth and Tim Aitkinson in 2009 with the explicit purpose of performing contemporary jazz composed and/or arranged by New Zealanders. This is something of a depature from the usual modis operandi of big bands in New Zealand- while most (excepting the repertory bands) do include local compositions and arrangements that is only a part of their repertoire.
Album art for East of the Sun (artist uncredited)
The AJO’s third album, East of the Sun is a collaboration with veteran singer Caitlin Smith. Recorded in 2019 the album features a combination of standard (arranged by AJO members) and originals by Smith and AJO leader Mike Booth. This is the first album where the AJO has collaborated with a vocalist, and Caitlin Smith is probably the best person to fulfil that role nimbly the demands of balancing contemporary big band arrangments on jazz standards with her signature vocal style.
The album opens with an up-tempo version of the standard ‘East of the Sun’, arranged by Tim Aitkinson. The arrangement creates multi-layered tensions, which, like magnetic poles push and pull the band sections and Smith in different directions, but remain beautifully cohesive. This is particularly effective in the (vocal) bridge leading into and throughout the instrumental section the alto saxophone solo.
Immediately following this rollicking opening, is a very dark, almost gothic arrangement of ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’, which reaches to the deepest and darkest timbres of Smith’s voice, and builds to a dramatic vocal climax that hits the listener between the eyes (if I may mix my metaphors!) before dropping away to a quietly melancholy guitar solo. The arrangment by Aitkinson really leans into the pathos of the lyrics to play on that sombreness in creating the instrumental lines. This version of the son is no melancholy, wistful plea, this is full on heartbreak of the worst kind (worthy of a dramatic fight and death scene from a play or film).
Smith’s original composition, ‘Prayer for a Miracle’ (arranged by Mike Booth), follows these two standards, and alleviates the darkness from ‘You Don’t Know’. A gospel infused song ‘Prayer for a Miracle’ is a joyful bop that makes you smile and dance in your seat. Booth’s arrangement provides space and support for Smith to display her voice, while creating joyful lines for the band to dance around her.
Two Duke Ellington compositions come after Smith’s ‘Prayer’, ‘I Like the Sunrise’ and ‘Solitude’. The arrangement of ‘I Like the Sunrise’ by Andrew Hall continues the feel from ‘Prayer’ with a light sprinkling of gospel sounds in his jazz-pop arrangement, that showcases Smith’s voice through delicate seemingly minimal supporting horn lines. ‘Solitude’ (arranged by Aitkinson), goes a little bit jazz-funk/ r’n’b with the arrangement rather than swing. Both arrangements are innovative, fun, and show off both the band and Smith’s voice. However these arrangements might not be to everyone’s taste as they are quite different from how most musicians would present them (then there’s the whole weight of Ellington’s legacy to deal with).
The final vocal selection on the album is an English language translation of Jobim’s ‘Trieste’ (arranged by Booth), which is a fine choice to follow Ellington’s ‘Solitude’ lyrically. The arrangement here is mellow and Latin-jazz inspired, without going entirely into bossa nova. The arrangement also provides us with the only extended example of Smith’s scatting on the album, which is a bit of a pity because she is a fine improviser.
The second part of the album is devoted to Mike Booth’s ‘Auckland Harbour Suite’. A four part suite, it begins with ‘Dawn’, which evokes a calm sunrise over the Waitemata harbour. The mellow horn lines and gentle sprinkes from guitar and piano form the base on which Booth builds for the solos (flugel horn and soprano saxophone), after which there is a clever section for the horns that portrays Auckland’s rush hour, with a chorus of raucous gulls in the background.
The second part of the suite ‘On the Water’ might well have been written to reflect the frenzy of the Hauraki Gulf during a sailing regatta. It’s busy, bouncy, and joyful, and for some reason makes me think of mid-twentieth-century TV show themes. ‘Rangitoto’ follows, named for the most prominent feature of Auckland’s Haruaki Gulf the volcano island Rangitoto. This movement brings the listener back to a quiet calm, with the musical reflection of looking back at the busy city isthmas from afar. The final movement ‘Harbour Lights’ takes us to evening in Auckland where the lights of the city (and on the harbour bridge’) and the traffic light up the water at night. As with the second movement this is a busier movement than ‘Dawn’ or ‘Rangitoto’, reflecting the different moods of the Waitemata.
Obviously my narrative intrpretation here is because I’m a born and bred Aucklander and I grew up around the Waitemata, so I have certain concrete impressions of the sights, sounds and moods of the city, the harbour and the Gulf. Of course as with any piece of music there are many, many ways that you can interpret sounds through your own experiences. However you perceive and interpret the musical lines in this suite and what they may reflect in your own experience and locations Booth has created a suite with exquisite moods to delight the listener.
Overall this is an excellent album from the AJO. Although the track list is quite diverse, it also manages cohesion in elegant and interesting ways. I would thoroughly recommend it as an intro to modern New Zealand big bands as it has a little something for everyone. East of the Sun was officially released on 30 July 2021 and is available for purchase on the Auckland Jazz Orchestra’s Bandcamp page (where [at the time of writing] they have a pretty sweet deal on their whole digital discography).