Tom Dennison

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Tom Dennison (bass)
Alex Freer (drums)
Steven Barry (piano)
Peter Koopman Jr (guitar)
Roger Manins (saxophone)

Tom Dennison's Zoo not only marks the debut of a fine emerging jazz composer and performer, but features a stellar line-up from the new vanguard of New Zealand jazz. The skill level that Tom and his band display is impressive indeed. These relatively young men all share a finely tuned understanding of jazz traditions, from which they strive to chart new territory for themselves.

Roger Manins needs no introduction to followers of the Rattle Jazz Series, but Tom Dennison, Steven Barry, Peter Koopman Jr and Alex Freer are equally fine musicians, all of whom we hope to work frequently with in future. This exceptional debut is superb on every level, a clear and exciting signal of great things ahead for all concerned. 


RAT-J-1008 (October, 2011)

Produced by Tom Dennison
Recorded and mixed by Steve Garden and Tom Dennison at The Garden Shed, Auckland
Design by Carvan

  Tom Dennison

    Stingray  (9:08)
    Owl  (7:00)
    Angler  (9:38)
    Llama  (8:32)
    Cat  (7:35)
    Antelope  (6:26)
    The Secret History of Islands  (5:35)

  © Tom Dennison 2011, APRA

My grateful thanks to Steven, Peter, Roger, Alex and Steve for their superb and generous contributions. Special thanks to Frank Gibson Jr and Roger Manins for taking such an interest in my musical development, and to my parents and sister for their encouragement and support.
Tom, October 2011



Review by jon4jaz
Zoo: Tom Dennison
Zoo is bassist Tom Dennison's first album as leader and it is a thing of beauty. This is a concept album and such albums focus around a theme. The very best of them stimulate the imaginings as well; leading the listener into subtle dreamscapes that can shift and change endlessly. Zoo does that.

Five of the seven tracks are named after animals, but we get no sense that these are the anthropomorphic playthings of humans. The Stingray, Owl, Llama, Cat and Antelope all gain distinct lives of their own; that not withstanding the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The first thing that the purchaser will notice is the exceptional art-work & design (by Carvan & Vivienne Frances Long). While the album can be purchased as a download, it would be a shame to miss out on the 3-fold cover or the best fidelity option. Every part of this album belongs together and perhaps that is its genius.

Once again the Auckland Jazz scene has surpassed itself and with these musicians it is hardly surprising. I know and admire most of the band members and Tom could hardly have picked better. There are a number of firsts as far as I can see and this being Tom's debut album, the most obvious one. I have seen Tom Dennison play around town, but the first time I saw him was at an Alan Broadbent concert in the Auckland town hall. When the trio played 'My Foolish heart' I could imagine Scotty La Faro nodding in approval - so perfectly did Tom execute the piece. He also played with pianist Mike Nock, and not long after that went to New York to study with Larry Grenadier and the equally renowned Kiwi Bass player Matt Penman. It was after this sabbatical that he returned home to work on the 'Zoo' album and the results of his efforts are available for all Jazz lovers to enjoy. With chops and writing skills like this he was never going to disappoint.

I am pleased that the album features the New Zealand born but Sydney based pianist Steven Barry on piano. He is an astonishing musician and to have him recorded this well is pure bliss. While comparisons are often odious I cannot help but place him stylistically somewhere between Steve Kuhn and Brad Mehldau. When he played at the CJC a few months ago he floored us all. Those that knew him nodded with an "I told you so" look - while those who were less familiar became fans for life.  This guy can breathe new life into any old warhorse and his own compositions amaze.  He is a shaman of the keyboard and a perfect foil for the other players.  He demonstrates this time and again as the album unfolds.

We also get to hear him in trio format on the final track. 'The secret life of Islands' is intensely beautiful and it leaves you wanting more. This is the perfect bookend to the album. Introducing a song about an Island rounds off the Zoo concept perfectly and gives it another Kiwi reference point. In my view the song could not have been written by anyone other than a Kiwi.

Also appearing is the gifted and much admired guitarist Peter Koopman Jr. Peter is both tasteful and innovative on this album and his long intelligent probing lines mark him out as a born improviser.  His maturity as a player is more than evident here. Sadly for us he is to depart for Sydney in a week and that is Australia's gain.

The veteran of the lineup is Roger Manins and he always pleases. We have come to expect Roger to play like there is no tomorrow and to play what is appropriate to whatever lineup he is in. On this recording he gives us his best and that is most evident on the ballad (track 5). Any song called the 'The cat' was always going to work for me and I was especially pleased with this composition. Roger plays this so convincingly that it sounds like a much-loved and familiar tune.  That is also due to the skill of the writing.

The drummer Alex Freer is the remaining quintet member.  I have not seen him play live, but he is like his band-mates, perfectly suited to the job in hand. I realise now that Alex, Tom, Peter and Steven have played together for a long time, because You Tube clips show them performing in their mid teens.

This album is New Zealand's own version of Empyrean Isles and like Herbie's album I am hoping that a 'part two' will be recorded someday. Perhaps featuring a rare and secretive pelagic bird like the New Zealand Storm Petrel? Those particular birds were hidden in plain view and lived a secret life on nearby islands for 100 years. This album has been discovered from the moment of its inception and it will hopefully suffer no such fate. Once again thanks to Rattle Jazz and to Steve Garden for recording this so beautifully.
jon4jaz 2011

Review by Michael Flynn, NZ Musician
Tom Dennison’s debut album stands as a good example to what you can achieve when you combine the promising talents of a fine young jazz composer with a label that has a passion for producing albums of exceptional quality. Rattle Jazz is a label that obviously cares about its artists and ‘Zoo’ is a delight to listen to. Produced by Dennison at The Garden Shed in Auckland, this is an impressive album by an impressive emerging musician. The album also features a line up of young local musos that at times virtually glow on this recording. With Dennison at the helm on bass, Alex Freer drums, Steven Barry piano, Peter Koopman Jr. on guitar and saxophonist Roger Manins, the interaction is first class as they all contribute in giving the pieces a balanced and creative focus. Opening tune Stingray is gorgeous, beginning with Manins’ understated sax and leading to some lovely guitar by Kooperman – Dennison allows each member to take centre stage in his compositions, to good effect. Steven Barry’s fine contribution of cascading phrases to the closing piece, The Secret History Of Islands, adds empathy to Dennison’s own sensitive bass. Highly recommended.

Review by Graham Reid, Elsewhere
While it is admirable that jazz musicians put out their own albums (especially in New Zealand where the market is small), it is even more so that any start-up label -- especially in New Zealand -- would firmly get behind an art form which has an audience which redefines the word "minority".

Rattle -- not a start-up label since it has been going 20 years, but only more recently recording and releasing jazz -- has already established a signature style in the same way Blue Note, Verve, Concord, ECM and others did all those decade ago: buy keeping the quality high, the roster of artists changing but core players returning for different sessions, the packaging enticing and -- most inportantly -- keeping the music coming.

Nothing speaks of a scene more than regular releases.

The Rattle Jazz imprint has certainly kept all those ends of the bargain going, and on this debut under bassist Dennison's name are seven post-bop tracks which are classy, refined, fluid, democratically distributed among the soloists and at times usefully challenging.

This is a young band but has already accrued considerable experience, and not just in jazz. Dennison has played with Alan Broadbent and Mike Nock (two very different learning experience) and has played in a trio and quartet with guitarist Peter Koopman for many years. He was also in a high school band with pianist Steven Barry who is here, then later played in Frank Gibson's Hardbopmobile and more recently spent time in New York studying and playing.

Drummer Alex Freer has a sideline in the excellent rock band Artisan Guns (and as a session player of rock and pop albums), saxophonist Roger Manins has appeared in numerous contexts and on Rattle previously, and Dennison played in his Quintet.

They have been schooled in studios and on stage, and known their way around standards. But here they stretch themselves from midnight blue ballads (Cat where Manins' warm and woody-sounding sax takes you to the window to look down on rain-splashes streets) to vigorous and angular pieces (Llama which Barry opens with spare lines and opens out into cleverly rhythmic pulses and stop-start punctuations).

Throughout you can hear myriad, subtle influences (fluid guitarists like John Abercrombie, minimalism which opens Antelope before it sprints away over driving drums, bass and Barry's flighty piano solo, hard-bop honking and energy from Manins on the opener Stingray) but the album is more than the sum of these parts.

This is an assured, often swinging, constant revelation and it closes with the thoughtful, romantically melancholy Secret History of Islands -- a piece which you'd hope might point to another album of similarly refined conception from some or all of these players.

They seem to have a label on which to do it.