Michael Houstoun | Rodger Fox




Michael Houstoun (piano)
Rodger Fox (trombone, musical director)

It may seem an incongruous pairing on the face of it, but Michael Houstoun and Rodger Fox have something vital in common – a passion for music, and it shows.

Their first recording together, Concerti is comprised of four substantial arrangements for jazz orchestra and concert piano, straddling two worlds in celebration of a common musical language. The music is dynamic, passionate, and extraordinarily rich in terms of its compositional and performance qualities. Simply put, this band kicks! And riding the wave like a seasoned jazz veteran is the fearless Michael Houstoun, matching the ensemble note for note. If Michael's contribution stopped at the remarkable arrangement of the first movement of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3, that would have been satisfying enough, but he goes head to head with Rodger and his full throttle ensemble for the full 12 rounds.




RAT-J-1026 (June, 2015)
This recording was made possible by a grant from the Research Office, Victoria University of Wellington (NZ)

Michael Houstoun with the Rodger Fox Big Band 

Produced by Rodger Fox and Talley Sherman 
Engineered by Troy Kelly at STL Studios (Wellington, NZ), and the Adam Concert Room, Victoria University, (Wellington, NZ)
Mixed by Talley Sherman at Tri-Tone Studios (Los Angeles, USA)
Design by UnkleFranc

1   Jazz Rondo (11:23)
     Composed and arranged by Bill Cunliffe
     Michael Houstoun (piano, arr. Bill Cunliffe)

2   Raff Riff (6:46)
     Composed by Mike Nock, arranged by Dave Lisik
     Michael Houstoun (piano, arr. David Lisik)
     Bryn van Vliet (tenor saxophone)
     Nick Granville (guitar)

3  Piano Concerto No. 3, Mvt 1 (16:24)
     Composed by Sergei Prokofiev, arranged by Bill Cunliffe
     Michael Houstoun (piano, arr. Bill Cunliffe)
     Bryn van Vliet (tenor saxophone)
     Rodger Fox (trombone)
     Lauren Ellis (drums)

4   Warriors (9:36)
     Composed and arranged by Bill Cunliffe Michael Houstoun (piano, arr. Bill Cunliffe)
     Rodger Fox (trombone)
     Anita Schwabe (Fender Rhodes)

     Rodger Fox plays a Yamaha Trombone
     Lauren Ellis plays Yamaha Drums
     Nick Granville plays Ibanez Guitars with Elixir Strings


What happens when two maestros meet each other head on; two musical worlds collide, neither gives way but somehow each reveals something about the other that’s new!
The combination of Michael Houstoun at the Steinway piano and Rodger Fox’s suave trombone, with special guests and his Big Band in fine form, is a rare treat for listeners. Both musicians have a lifetime’s experience and craftsmanship to bring to this project yet this is the first time they have been onstage and in the studio together.
A movement of Prokofiev’s famous third Piano Concerto bristles in this arrangement by Grammy award-winning Bill Cunliffe (USA) for an 18-piece Big Band. Two other arrangements by Cunliffe, Fox’s long-time friend and masterful collaborator, will be new to listeners but not for long. David Lisik, Rodger’s colleague and a composer at Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music, has arranged a Mike Nock work for this album. Mike and Michael, Nock plays Houstoun plays Nock, have already worked together at festivals around New Zealand and Houstoun recorded works by Nock on his award-winning album INLAND (RAT-D016).
The Rodger Fox Big Band needs little or no introduction. Under Rodger’s leadership, they’ve been at the cutting edge of jazz in Aotearoa for decades and their most recent album The Capitol Sessions (IA-1005), recorded at the legendary Capitol Studios in Los Angeles, is testament to their place amongst the best big bands in this part of the world right now.
So the stage is set. Let these brilliant, multi award-winning musicians take you on a journey somewhere new. You may begin as a lover of jazz or a classical music buff; however, you will emerge as a music-lover. Sit back and enjoy!
Euan Murdoch
Director, Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music




After last year's magnificent recording of the complete Beethoven Sonatas, Michael Houstoun deserves to relax, and clearly the pianist is having a ball on Concerti with the Rodger Fox Big Band. There's no Beethoven here, although the longest track has the first movement of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto, presented in a smooth big band arrangement by Bill Cunliffe. The Russian original gets quite a work-over, with a chart that accommodates both a spruce solo on drums from Lauren Ellis and a pretty juicy trombone turn from Fox himself. Some jaws may drop when Prokofiev's opening clarinets are usurped by saxophones, leading to the sort of lush blowsiness that one might associate with closing titles in the movie-house.

Nevertheless, Cunliffe cleverly toys with our expectations. Although the listener might feel like a delinquent teenager blowing bubblegum in a concert hall, Houstoun not only chisels away with his customary incisiveness, but also dishes out some pretty mean cocktail piano. Cunliffe also provides an overture of sorts with a Jazz Rondo from his recent Piano Concerto. Mozartian echoes are deliberate, starting with a hint of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and this cute and witty musical entanglement bubbles away very agreeably for just over 11 minutes. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about Cunliffe's original Warriors and Mike Nock's Raff Riff which do not quite register with the same individuality.
By William Dart, NZ Herald, July 25, 2015

Michael Houstoun With The Rodger Fox Big Band: Concerti (2015)
By JACK BOWERS, Published: August 30, 2015
There is a saying about "the best of both possible worlds," an adage that springs immediately to mind when listening to Concerti, a remarkable collaboration between classical pianist Michael Houstoun and trombonist Rodger Fox's superb big band from Wellington, New Zealand. The captivating program consists of four extended works, two by American pianist / composer Bill Cunliffe, another by New Zealand's own Mike Nock, and the first movement of Sergei Prokofiev's lyrical and dramatic Piano Concerto No. 3, astutely arranged by Cunliffe for a large jazz ensemble.
Although Houstoun is not a jazz pianist per se, he has an unequivocal fondness for the music, clearly knows how to swing (as he does with abandon on the Prokofiev concerto and elsewhere), and every note he chooses to play is valid and germane. As for Fox's band, it is as impressive as they come and squarely on the mark from the outset. Cunliffe's sunny "Jazz Rondo" sets the compass, enticing the ear with its charming melody and irrepressible rhythms while Houstoun bares his surprisingly savvy jazz chops. Nock's "Raff Riff," arranged by David Lisik, is an intensive and powerful swinger with freewheeling solos by tenor saxophonist Bryn van Vliet, guitarist Nick Granville and Houstoun, who also comps quite well. The Prokofiev concerto is a masterwork, overspread with shifting tempos, luminous dynamics, crisp passages by the ensemble, sharp solos by Houstoun, van Vliet and Fox and tenacious work by the rhythm section, firmly anchored by drummer Lauren Ellis (whose powerful solo leads to its invigorating denouement).
Concerti closes with the second of Cunliffe's engaging works, "Warriors," another rhythmic tour de force on which Houstoun trades sharp ad libs with Anita Schwabe on Fender Rhodes while Fox adds another emphatic solo. The mood and tempo are upbeat, and Cunliffe appears to have drawn for inspiration (perhaps subconsciously) a phrase or two from Jerome Kern's standard, "The Way You Look Tonight." As before, the band is exemplary, all the more so as half a dozen of its members (saxophonists van Vliet and Eilish Wilson, trumpeters Michael Costeloe and James Wisnesky, trombonists Cameron Kidby and Sean Tickle) are fresh out of Fox's student band at the New Zealand School of Music.
There's another maxim that seems entirely proper when weighing the various elements in Concerti: "a marriage made in heaven." While some purists may argue that this is not big-band jazz in the truest sense of the term, all the basic components are there in spades. Above all, the ensemble and its "classical" guest, Houstoun, really swing. As the concept is exceptional, the performance unerring, and there is nothing elsewhere to censure, a motion to award five stars has been proposed, seconded and approved.
By Jack Bowers, August 30, 2015

Much as New Zealand's most accomplished classical pianist might have wanted, and indeed deserved, a less arduous project after his magisterial Complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas, this one with the country's premier big band does seem an odd fish which often seems to satisfy neither camp. More correctly perhaps, each camp frequently seems to mining its own vein independent of the other. Or, in the case of the Bill Cunliffe-penned opener Jazz Rondo, a place where Mozart gets a hat-tip in Houstoun's passages but the Fox sections (and they really do feel that distinct) are like an Ellington-esque jazz band being shoe-horned into something approximating orchestral drama. It is a piece of parts, and the sum comes up considerably less than the whole it should have been.
The same holds true for Cunliffe's other piece Warriors, although the band excel despite the jigsaw-puzzle nature of the piece and both keyboard players, Anita Schwabe and Houstoun, find discrete space to express themselves. But even less engaging is Mike Nock's stupidly/cutely named Raff Riff (arranged by Dave Lisik) which comes off as mostly bluff and bluster designed to impress by scale rather than sensitivity.
Ironically then the Cunliffe-arranged opening movement of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No 3 comes off the best in this company. It possesses an elegance familiar from the best of the Ellington bands, delicious sax parts, Houstoun slipping right in to the big band genre (despite the piece's origins) and the whole things swings along with vigour and verve, with Fox nailing in a slightly lascivious and woozy trombone solo which adds sex'n'steam to proceedings. It also has an assured sense of dynamics (and a more than acceptable drum solo by Lauren Ellis) which you might frequently feel lacking in the other pieces here. And not once in its expansive 16 minutes do you get the feeling that, "Here comes the jazz bit" or "Here comes the classical guy again".
Houstoun sounds entirely at home with the band on this one in a way he doesn't elsewhere. And vice-versa. Those who have fought the rock/classical or jazz/classical wars in the past -- from Deep Purple's pretentiously awful Concerto for Group and Orchestra through those damnable forced marriages of classical arrangements of jazz standards (some populist stuff by pianist Claude Bolling and flute player Jean-Pierre Rampal) -- will be rightly wary of this. And over most of these proceedings their antennae are probably well attuned
The award-winning Rattle Jazz label has become the go-to place for most of the exciting, well-grounded and innovative jazz expression in New Zealand this past decade. Not this time though. Surely they didn't feel that after that phenomenal Beethoven -- 14 CDs in total -- they owed Michael one?
By Graham Reid, August 10, 2015