Mixing it up: Renowned jazz and classical piano performers Rodger Fox, left, and Michael Houstoun


A Queenstown concert next Wednesday features two pre-eminent but very different musicians you’d probably not imagine performing together.

In one corner you’ve got New Zealand’s foremost classical pianist Michael Houstoun, who was in the resort only two weeks ago playing for a chamber music concert at the Lodge at The Hills.

In the other corner you’ve got Kiwi jazz icon Rodger Fox — who performed with the Queenstown Jazz Orchestra two months ago — along with his big band and blues vocalist Erna Ferry.

Fox explains he met Houstoun by chance at Christchurch Airport in 2014 and invited him to a big band concert he was hosting in that city.

When Houstoun emailed an apology for not making it, Fox sent him his recording of a jazz arrangement by his good friend, American pianist Bill Cunliffe, of a Prokofiev piano concerto he noticed Houstoun was performing around that time.

After Houston got back, delighted at what he’d heard, Fox says ‘‘I just joked with him and said ‘I think we could probably put something like this together’.’’

The pair duly got together, and were the headline act at the recent Wellington Jazz Festival — and are now embarking on a five-date South Island tour.

Fox says his friend ‘‘just fits in with the band, and he has a hell of a good time’’.

‘‘People come to the concert, and all of a sudden they find Michael Houstoun either talking on the microphone or joking with the band or smiling, which he never seems to do when he’s playing classical music.’’

And when he’s not performing, ‘‘he just sits at the side of the stage and he’s usually out of his seat dancing, which is unbelievable’’.

‘‘You can see the classical bods melting down, basically — I think he just likes putting it out there and showing there is a lot more to life than being this serious.’’

Fox says ‘‘over a few cocktails it sort of came to light one of his favourite artists is [Canadian singer-songwriter] Gino Vannelli’’.

As a result, Fox asked his friend Cunliffe to arrange two enduring Vannelli tunes —Brother to Brother and Storm at Sunup — which Houstoun’s performing on this tour.

Other concert treats include Ferry and the big band combining for versions of Peggy Lee’s I Love Being Here With You, George Gershwin’s Summertime and The Rolling Stones’ Honky Tonk Women.

Star: Blues jazz singer Erna Ferry

Fox says he’s also been working on reimagining Kiwi legend Sir Dave Dobbyn’s songs.

‘‘I usually lay a couple of those on the audience to see if they can recognise them — some of the arrangements take it right away from the original thing.’’

One of his reasons for this project is to provide Kiwi content for the burgeoning number of big bands in NZ high schools — at last count, 166.

Meanwhile, Fox says he’ll be conducting his big band next week with just one arm after dislocating his left shoulder falling down stairs.

‘‘If it’s not Covid Level 2 I’m dealing with, it’s a sling.’’

He may struggle to play his trombone, but says ‘‘I’ve got enough young punters in the band who actually want to go out and play, so I can just turn them loose’’.

The sling, however, won’t stop him tutoring local jazz students at a ‘Jazz on the Road’ workshop before the concert.

With Wednesday’s audience limited to 160 due to Covid restrictions, Fox says he’s indebted to underwriting from Queenstown’s Turn Up The Music Trust and Youthtown, who are also underwriting the workshop.

Michael Houstoun with the Rodger Fox Big Band, Queenstown Memorial Centre, October 20, 7.30pm, tickets $65 plus fees via eventfinda