Graham Reid | | 1 min read
Saxophonist Neill Duncan (who died in December 2021) was a mainstay of Wellington's Braille collective in the Eighties, that revolving door of musicians who appeared in various line-ups as different bands, although all sharing similar members and an experimental jazz ethos.
Which means Duncan's name would be familiar from the Primitive Art Group, Four Volts, Six Volts, Rabbitlock . . . He also played with the Jews Brothers, Blue Bottom Stompers, Front Lawn . . .
It seemed nothing could stop him here or in Australia where he moved in the early 2000s, not even the loss of an arm to cancer in 2012 (alluded to in this album's title and which explains the arresting cover image).
In 2020 he recorded this album -- co-produced with Jeff Henderson for the Kiwijahzz imprint -- back in Wellington with some of his Braille familiars: cornet player Steve Roche, drummer Anthony Donaldson, bassist Tom Callwood and string player David Donaldson (banjo, Thai lute) with guitarist Daniel Beban and Cory Champion (vibes).
Pickpocket Rag – which slowly emerges from improv noodling and plucking, typical of these players – and Lonely Swinger immediately take you back to the ramshackle but enjoyable New Orleans-influenced struts and the quirky melodies of early Braille albums.
If they seem an easy default position it probably is but the more atmospheric, eight minute-plus Naomi's Window points in another direction. For the first half it's a quietly exploratory soundscape of electronics, vibes and percussion before Duncan enters with a few spare notes full of weariness before the sax almost physically rouses itself from the torpor to be joined by cornet in a gorgeous piece with vaguely Spanish references.
Co-written by Duncan, the DGO and John Stuart, it is a terrific central pivot on the album.
Another co-write is the lively Handiwork which edges closer to improv post-rock with bebop in the hip pockets.
Neill Duncan left behind a very large body of music (as well as his wife Naomi and five children) and if somehow he has escaped you – easy if you weren't attuned to the edgy but cult releases on Braille – then start here with the joyfully strange Waitsean opener Loosening the Screws then shift to Handiwork, smile away with Lonely Swinger and settle in for the mood of Naomi's Window.
You can hear and buy this album at bandcamp here
For more on the prolific Kiwijahzz label look here and prepare to be impressed.