The Jac: A Gathering and Walking Spirits

2020 was the year of interruptions. The Jac were supposed to be celebrating their 10th anniversary with a tour of their third studio album A Gathering. While the album got released they weren’t able to tour or celebrate, so now it’s 2021 and Aotearoa/New Zealand has been able to return to a semblence of pre-pandemic life The Jac are making up for lost time with a double album release of A Gathering, and their fourth album Walking Spirits, and a tour to celebrate their 10th anniversary.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Jac, they are one of New Zealand’s premier large jazz ensembles (but not a big band). Call them either a small big band, or an outsized combo, their 4 horn 4 rhythm section lineup provides them the best of both musical worlds: large enough to perform complex, intricate harmonies and orchestrations, small enough to be able to embrace minimal and sprightly small combo ideas with ease. Not to mention they’re able to fit onto most bandstands.

The band lineup consists of:

Jake Baxendale- alto saxophone (and other occasional reeds and flutes), and composition

Lex French- trumpet and composition

Matt Allison- trombone

Chris Buckland- tenor saxopohone

Callum Allardice- guitar and composition

Daniel Millward- piano and composition

Nick Tipping- bass

Shaun Anderson- drums

Both A Gathering and Walking Spirits were borne out of their 2016-2017 collaboration with South Korea’s Black String and ensemble who combine traditional Korean music with jazz. The collaboration eventuated because the then director of the Wellington International Jazz Festival, Shelagh Magdaza, had seen Black String on a trip to South Korea and persuaded the members of The Jac that they should collaborate. A couple of grants and a trip to Seoul by Jake Baxendale and Callum Allardice later a collaboration had occurred. They debuted the collaboration at the 2017 Wellington International Jazz Festival, which included two new commissioned compositions ‘A Gathering’ and ‘Beyond the Palace’ written by Allerdice and Baxendale respectively that were arranged for the combined ensemble (along with one piece from Black String’s repertoire).

Image: “A Gathering” album art. A number of swans emerging from blue clouds encircling a mysterious pool marked with Korean lettering. Artwork by Eden Fainberg.

A Gathering and Walking Spirits were recorded at Roundhouse Studios (Auckland) in June 2019, and use the collaboration as inspiration. A Gathering, includes both of the commissioned compositions from the live collaborations, but of course rearranged for The Jac, as well as three other compositions that were influenced by the collaboration with Black String.

The album opens with Baxendale’s ‘Beyond the Palace’. Inspired by a vist to a Korean palace and witnessing a protest against then South Korean president Park Geun-hye ‘Beyond the Palace’ juxtaposes serenity and righteous anger. The tension is effectively built to fever pitch through repetitive foreground and background motifs before dropping away to a disquieting quiet moment that presumes serenity, but in the background the tension rises again. This pattern is repeated throughout the work, before culminating in a triumphant musical declaration that then eases the tension in an elegant denoument that reasserts the serenity of the palace.

‘Lullaby (MV Sewol)’, composed by the Jac’s pianist Daniel Millward, commemorates the victims of the M.V. Sewol ferry sinking tragedy in 2014. It is elegant and elegiac, calm and gentle as befits a lullaby. The peaceful, liquid, melody holds your attention not by gripping you, but caressing you. The harmonies rise like the gentlest of seas providing just enough tension for the soloists to play against, tugging like the tide. This is the sea in its gentlest mode, gently holidng you and washing your sorrows away. ‘Lullaby’ is a fitting tribute that reminds you of the constance of life and love. My only complaint about this particular instance of the piece is that I would have liked it to have been a few minutes longer.

Jake Baxendale’s ‘Tūi’ evokes the warbling voice and the rhythmic whirr of a tūi’s wings, and the music of other native bird such as the piwakawaka (fantail) and riroriro (grey warbler) found in the lemon tree outside of Baxendale’s studio window. At the same time this is a composition heavily infuenced by Korean musical ideas and motifs. It is a charming composition that dances, dives, and flirts with the listener. The head theme gives you the sense that you are sitting in some exotic and yet native environment listening to fantastical birdlife that (at least for a listener from Aotearoa) is also very home-like with birds that are common to pretty much every back and front yard in the country.  ‘Tui’ also won the 2020 Apra NZ Jazz Tūi award for best jazz composition- possibly marking the first time a piece entitled ‘Tūi’ has won any of the Tūi awards.

The second work by pianist Daniel Millward on this album, ‘Ritual’ was inspired by his own Asian heritage and his journeys around Korea. It delves into ancient Korean folklore, into court ritual and plays with the mysticism of shamanistic ritual. In a band that is dominated by its horn frontline, the piano comes to prominance as a prime melodic driver, which is only right in so personal a composition. It is an elegant and stately composition,  and the work evokes a rich tapestry of heritage, with layers of musical material, reminiscient of court dress- each layer necessary and important to create a living work of art. Another standout of this piece is the all too brief but significant solo by drummer Shaun Anderson.

The final piece on the album is Callum Allardice’s ‘A Gathering’. As the liner notes state, this work represents the kaupapa of the collaboration between Black String and The Jac. It is a coming together of different musical traditions, cultures, practices and people. It fuses and and melds all the things that brought these two very different groups together. While the piece as recorded here only involves The Jac, it still evokes the presence of their Korean collaborators. ‘A Gathering’ moves slowly and gently, but ever increasingly towards a joyful celebration. It uses jazz harmonies, underpinned with Korean musical ideas to elaborate on ideas of ritual and rite between different musical cultures, twining the two in a dance of tension and release. The twists and turns of the work, the changes in mood and tonality, are full of delicious surprises for the listener, full of delight and joy at a musical exploration.

You’ll have noticed that I have barely mentioned the soloing aspect of each piece. This is not because they are in any way unnotable- rather the oppoiste in fact- but they are so well integrated and and woven into the fabric of each composition that it seems wrong to call them out somehow. This is in part a trademark of The Jac, they are truly an ensemble in the best sense of the word. This is not about a lead player and their supporting musicians, but all members play important roles within the creation of each piece. Through this album anything I had to say about the individual solos was so interwoven with the compositon as a whole- each soloist truly commited themselves to the vision of the piece rather than travelling their own path.

You can purcahse A Gathering on The Jac’s Bandcamp page here

Image: “Walking Spirits” album art. A Fox-like spirit lounges on top of the old Athfield housing complex (Mt Cook, Wellington) watching the pink and orange sunset. Artwork by Eden Fainberg

The second album, Walking Spirits continues spiritually, if not musically, on the same path of the Black String collaboration. It is best represented by the album cover art (by Eden Fainberg) of a fox-like spirit- perhaps it is a Japanese kitsune reclining on the Athfield housing complex in Mt Cook, Wellington. This is an album that goes in many different, mischievious directions, at once looking back to the bands roots in hard-bop and progressive jazz and looking forward in new directions.

The title track, ‘Walking Spirits’ was composed by pianist Daniel Millward is a sprightly and joyful piece. It might possibly more accurate to say that this composition is dancing rather than walking, as the melody flits and bounces through alternating feels of 9/8 and 12/8. Millward’s piano and Nick Tipping’s bass ostinatos, and drummer Shaun Anderson’s drum grooves provide the grounding over which the front line instruments romp energetically. As ever the horns demonstrate how tightly they work together as a unit through the intricate, and challenging lines that Millward created for them.

 Callum Allardice’s ‘Epoch I’ and ‘Epoch III’, ‘Dawn’ and ‘Demise’ follow on as the next two tracks. ‘Epoch I’, Dawn provides the listener with an image of a slightly stormy, colourful dawn setting replete with horn warbles replicating a raucous bird chorus. The melody shifts between unified set time sections and freer rubato moments, between calm, introspective, slightly melancholy moments and stormy intensity. This represents a different side to Allardice’s usual compositional style, and hints at future possibilities and directions for his compositional voice.

‘Epoch III’, Demise continues on the melancholic path with elegantly structured horn harmonies and melodies. It is a composition that in some ways reminds the listener of some of the Birth of the Cool arrangements, and also jazz standards such as ‘Round Midnight’ or ‘Good-bye Pork Pie Hat’. It is an aching ballad that pulls at the heart of the listener, and ends on a question. To whom or of what remains undefined.

You may have noticed that there is no Epoch II. The liner notes state “the nature or even the very existence of a second movement remains a mystery.” So must listeners bear with the curiosity.

‘Hero’s Theme’ by Jake Baxendale strongly contrasts with the previous tracks. While the darker harmonies remain at the fore the mood shifts from dreamy ballad to late night club, with driving rock drums and punchy horns. Behind these overt aspects of the composition is a constant, subltle shifting of meter that plays and teases the listener’s ear. The interplay in the rhythm section, particularly between piano, bass, and drums provides the base line excitement and solidly grounds the horns and guitar on their melodic and harmonic flights of fancy.

Concluding the album is trumpeter Lex French’s tribute to the victims of the Christchurch Mosque attack ‘Hymn for 51’. The opening ought to come with a warning- so here it is: the flurry of horns and drums is startling, I literally jumped when I pressed play on this track. It is, of course, intentional: a fierce cry of the hurt soul. It soon drops away to a solo bass moment by Nick Tipping, who provides a quieter, gentler, elegy before French’s trumpet takes up the fierce cry again. The unified horns sections are reminscent in feel to a memorial service- rhythmically constrained, tonally raw. Throughout and behind the front line and the solos Shaun Anderson’s drums provide a counter texture against which the horns impose themselves.

Walking Spirits will be released at 7pm on 4 June 2021, and you can catch them on tour around New Zealand through June to September:


●      PALMERSTON NORTH:Manawatu Jazz and Blues Festival, Globe theatre. 8:00pm, June 3rd. TICKETS

●      KĀPITI COAST: Te Raukura ki Kāpiti, Kāpiti Performing Arts Center. 7:30pm, June 5th. TICKETS

●      WELLINGTON:Wellington Jazz Festival, City Gallery Auditorium. 5:00pm, June 12th.TICKETS

●      CHRISTCHURCH:03 Sessions, Space Academy. 8:00pm, June 17th. TICKETS

●      OAMARU: Oamaru Opera House. 7:30pm, June 18th.

●      DUNEDIN: Dunedin Jazz Club Concert Series, Hanover Hall. 8:00pm, June 19thTICKETS

●      AUCKLAND: Creative Jazz Club, Anthology Lounge. 8:00pm, August 25th. 

●      HAMILTON: Nivara Lounge. 8:00pm, August 26th. TICKETS

●      NELSON: Fairfield House. 7:30pm, September 3rd. TICKETS

●      MOTUEKA: Chanel Arts Centre. 7:30pm, September 4th. TICKETS

●      GOLDEN BAY: The Mussel Inn. 8:00pm, September 5th.