‘Wang hang’ missed, but not masked

Kika Sprangers Large Ensemble

REVIEW

Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues,
Monday 26 October to Sunday 1 November, 2020

The expression “recorded live” has always seemed a little contradictory to me, although I get the fact that the music’s not created in a studio, because being there is so different from hearing music remotely, via a recording.

Recordings are obviously well worth having, whether on CD or vinyl or streamed (via Bandcamp of course). But this global pandemic has brought into sharp focus the significant gap between watching musicians at work in the flesh and in the same room, and watching them on a screen.

In past months I have enjoyed lunchtime concerts on Thursdays presented by Monash University’s Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music. These gigs become available via Facebook at 1pm, which adds a real-time quality. Shown in full-screen mode, these concerts can feel as if musicians are performing in your home. You can look forward to them and regret it when you forget to tune in on time for the start.

Yet the real-time nature of these concerts is illusory – they can be viewed later via the school’s Facebook page. I also have loved Paul Grabowsky’s Friday ruminations on the piano from his home during the lockdown, also via Facebook, yet these can be enjoyed long after he has released them online.

Restrictions imposed to maximise safety during the pandemic have engendered a variety of online musical offerings and it would make little sense to limit access to one-off, watch-now-or-never “outings”. But that flexibility, and practical aspects of viewing from home, can result in a stop-start experience with potential distractions to challenge our attention. At a live concert which we have travelled to attend – a real outing – we don’t receive a phone call or an invitation to help with meal preparation in mid performance.

So, whatever the quality of our home speakers or smart TV monitors, online gigs are never going to match the real thing. Many of us may decide to work from home more often once Covid restrictions ease, but we will want to leave home to experience live music as soon as it is safe to do so.

Covid-19 prevented the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues from commemorating its 30th year over its usual weekend before Cup Day in the regional city and in the great venues so many fans have loved to visit over the years. Instead, the festival board and three artistic directors – Eugene Ball, Zoe Hauptmann and Scott Solimo – put together an online program over seven days, ably and irrepressibly introduced by Frank Davidson. Surely planning this festival must have been one of the most difficult tasks imaginable given that coronavirus restrictions were changing so frequently.

It would be unfair to expect the online program to measure up to the usual music-saturated weekend away and the associated “Wang hang”, but it was vital to show that this important festival still has an ongoing presence on the annual calendar of live jazz and blues.

An important drawcard and thread over five nights came as 10 vocalist contenders in this year’s National Jazz Awards performed from their Covid-safe studio locations in each state – a surely much more difficult task than singing before a live audience. Congratulations to all who performed, but especially first-placed Lauren Henderson from South Australia, Josh Kyle from Victoria (second) and Jessica Spina from Queensland, who took the honours when the judges Kristin Berardi, Michelle Nicole and Sam Keevers announced the results on Saturday. A difficult enough decision to make with all contenders in Wangaratta each year, this must have been exceptionally tough for judges and performers.

Over three nights, courtesy of the Melbourne Jazz Co-operative, we were able to enjoy all-too-brief excerpts from previously unreleased footage of a 2016 concert commemorating the great drummer/composer Allan Browne. I especially appreciated the Barney McAll Unit’s moving and finessed rendition of Sorrow Horse on Monday evening and on Thursday night the beauty and serenity of Keller/Murphy/Ball’s performance of Lullaby, with its space, shimmering horn and complementarity. Hearing Tim Stevens (piano) and Nick Haywood (bass) from this concert was also a treat. But these musical morsels left us wanting more.

Just as the NJA finalists’ performances were created specifically for this digital festival, so were three commissioned works of improvisation aired on Wednesday night, featuring Maria Moles on drums, Scott Tinkler on trumpet and, as Wolfa, Jenny Barnes on vocal effects and Mick Meagher on electric bass. Moles delivered a slow build and then fluidity at speed that recalled a performance by expatriate drummer Joe Talia, now in Japan. Barnes and Meagher, who I had last heard at the MJC’s 35th anniversary concert in January 2018, explored the timbre and expressive power of their respective instruments – voice and electric bass – in a challenging set. Tinkler’s trumpet, clear and unembellished, skipped danced and flew in ways that frequently delighted. It was a celebration of “trumpah” and simply wonderful.

On Friday the digital festival celebrated its connection with the Amersfoort Jazz Festival in the Netherlands, forged by multi-instrumentalist Adam Simmons when he was co-artistic director for Wangaratta. In appropriately named sextet Arcing Wires, led by 2018 NJA winner and drummer/composer Alex Hirlian, young musicians played five pieces written by band members and billed as a fusion of “math rock, progressive metal and jazz”. My favourite of the set was the lively Sensory Overload by Felix Lalanne (guitar) and Nish Manjunath (tenor sax), while Seratonin was a little too laid back. The use of imaginative background screens suited the electronic feel of this music and the set was a substantive contribution with some excellent solo work.

Simmons displayed his characteristic enthusiasm and energy in what could be described as a coaching session for the building of relationships and linkages in the world of jazz, a verbal essay punctuated with powerful and expressive bursts of saxophone. The commitment of this supremely creative musician is evident and, it is to be hoped, infectious, yet I was left wanting to hear more from his instrument in this outing. I was glad to learn that he was wearing his characteristic red socks.

The second concert of the evening on Friday continued the Amersfoort connection and delivered a performance that could easily have transported us to the Wangaratta Performing Arts Centre theatre on the first evening of a weekend gathering. Saxophonist Kika Sprangers led her 11-piece “large ensemble” in five finely crafted and constantly evolving pieces that amply showcased band members, including vocalists and a French horn player. The compositions allowed for many well executed reed solos from Sprangers, yet the changes from atmospheric and eerie to fragmentary, tactile and percussive, then periods of bustling tension and minor chaos were very much the ensemble’s collective work. This was the sort of concert we surely hope can be featured at Wangaratta in future years with the artists appearing in person.

From much closer to home, Saturday evening included two live-streamed concerts from Adelaide’s Wheatsheaf Hotel, co-presented with Creative Original Music Adelaide – each gig replete with a live audience to add that touch of realism and make Melburnians envious. A technical hitch with the sound early in the first outing only served to enhance the feeling of immediacy. The Wheatsheaf crowd loved the easy fluidity and vitality of songwriter Jo Lawry’s vocals, laced with scat and vocalese. Known for her work with Sting, Lawry joined partner Will Vinson (NYC) on saxophone and keys in her quartet at 5.30pm, delivering a warm and engaging set with Angus Mason on drums and Bonnie Aue on acoustic bass.

At 8.30pm we were back at the Wheatsheaf for some straight ahead jazz from The New Cabal quartet, led by bassist Lyndon Gray, who had not shared the stage together since the middle of 2019. They played long-form original pieces by band members, allowing plenty of room for a sequential, extended solos in which the mutual understanding wrought through 10 years of playing in about 500 gigs was evident. However, this set was not compelling enough to prevent my being at times briefly enticed away by home distractions, which would not have occurred had I been among the live audience.

Zela Margossian Quintet

The final concert of the digital Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues on Sunday night was a superb outing and a fitting finale. A co-presentation with this year’s Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival and the Sydney Improvised Music Association, the Zela Margossian Quintet’s performance was recorded in that city then shared with the online Wangaratta audience. Pianist/composer Margossian’s Armenian heritage and classical training showed through in nine compositions, including an encore. Adem Yilmaz shone on percussion, complementing Jacques Emery’s work on bass and Alexander Inman-Hislop’s finesse at the drum kit. Margossian delivered free-flowing, dynamically varied and expressive piano notes, while Stuart Vandegraaff’s often sinuous contributions on soprano sax and clarinet were also luminous. The quintet displayed cohesion throughout in an engrossing set.

In this concert, as in the Kika Sprangers outing, we were transported into a place that may have been, just for a while, part of the usual Wang hang.

Roll on 2021.

ROGER MITCHELL

PS: This review did not set out to cover blues performances.

PPS: Stills in Motion – A Retrospective was not reviewed.

Wangaratta streaming

Allan Browne enjoying an outing with Sweethearts in 2013 at Wangaratta.

PREVIEW

Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues,
Monday 26 October to Sunday 1 November, 2020

When venerated Melbourne drummer and composer Allan Browne died on 13 June 2015, I was deeply saddened, but feeling the loss from a distance while visiting family in Canada.

When jazz musicians gathered to celebrate Browne’s musical life and legacy in a memorial concert on Friday 23 September the following year at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre, I was again absent in Canada – international travel was possible then. So I missed this opportunity to hear musicians who had played with him over the years paying tribute in this event presented by the Melbourne Jazz Co-operative.

So I am looking forward to seeing and hearing the previously unreleased footage from the concert, provided by MJC and aired during the extended seven-day Wangaratta festival, presented digitally in its 30th year due to the Covid-19 restrictions.

Of course it won’t be the same as being there in person, but the opportunity to experience excerpts from the memorial concert is welcomed indeed, beginning on Monday 26 October with a quartet featuring Barney McAll, Julien Wilson, Sam Anning and Dom Stitt.

On Tuesday we can tune in to hear a traditional jazz double header with the Margie Lou Dyer Quintet followed by Al’s Emotional Baggage Handlers. Thursday will bring Tim Stevens and Nick Haywood as well as Keller/Murphy/Ball. What a treat to hear all these musicians in such a moving tribute to Al Browne.

Vocalists have always been a hit at Wangaratta over the 29 years in which fans have gathered at that wonderful fulcrum of national and international jazz in regional Victoria. The annual National Jazz Awards this year feature vocalists and during the extended festival we have a chance to hear all 10 finalists – an opportunity not often taken up when there are competing concerts available.

The finalists are Harriett Allcroft (Vic), Briana Cowlishaw (NSW), Olivia Chindamo (Vic), Amelia Evans (Vic), Lucy Iffla (WA), Lauren Henderson (SA), Josh Kyle (Vic), Owen Measday (WA), Rita Satch (Vic) and Jessica Spina (Qld).  In two screenings each night, recordings of the finalists’ work made in their states under Covid-19 restrictions will be aired nightly from Monday 26 October to Friday 30 October, judged by Michelle Nicole, Kristin Berardi and Sam Keevers. Winners and runners up will be announced on Saturday 31 October. Prizes are $7000 and a recording session with Pughouse Studios for the winner, $4000 for the second place and $2000 for third.

Voice will also feature on Wednesday 28 October in a commissioned concert, I Heart Improvisation, of works by Maria Moles on drums, Scott Tinkler on trumpet and, in a co-presentation with the MJC, duo WOLFA, with Jenny Barnes (vocals) and Mick Meagher (electric bass). Expect the unexpected here, and if that’s a cliché (which it is) then bear in mind that afterwards you’ll undoubtedly say, along with a certain PM, “How good is that?”.

Providing the international contribution to this digital festival will be a 90-minute performance entitled The Amersfoot Connection featuring 2018 NJA winner Alex Hirlian’s new work for sextet Arcing Wires (math rock, progressive metal and jazz), Adam Simmons talking and playing in Broodje Hadi and Dutch saxophonist Kika in the Kika Sprangers Large Ensemble. Don’t ask me what math rock entails – we’ll find out.

The national aspect of the festival requires no flights or long drives for musicians or fans. Partnerships with COMA (Creative Original Music Adelaide), SIMA (Sydney Improvised Music Association), the MJC and Australian Jazz Museum in Melbourne have brought us the Jo Lawry Quartet and The New Cabal quartet from SA, Zela Margossian’s quintet from NSW and recently digitised footage from the 1986 Jazz Convention for traditional jazz fans.

Given the challenges 2020 has thrown the arts and entertainment industry, the festival has made provision for viewers to donate to artists while viewing their concerts, with 100 per cent of the donations going directly to that artist.

Musicians from Wangaratta featured include vocalists Emma Christie and Paris Zachariou, swing and band tunes from former festival chair Mark Bolsius and Soli’s Blues Group.

Presentation of this festival against the odds must be applauded given the uncertainty resulting from the coronavirus roller-coaster ride this year. It must have been the worst possible situation in which to plan a festival. Co-artistic director Eugene Ball has admitted that, “in recent months, the format and program have been reimagined and rebuilt many times”.

“However, despite the hurdles that COVID-19 has presented, we have arrived at a program that celebrates the festival’s unique identity and its contribution to the Australian jazz and blues community over the last 30 years,” Ball has said.

And Co-artistic director Zoe Hauptmann adds that, “while this year’s festival differs wildly from the event we envisaged late last year, we are proud to have brought together such a rich and diverse program. We hope that there is something in it for every listener; lovers of contemporary jazz, blues, and traditional jazz.”

We may as well be honest and acknowledge that we’d all love to be up in Wangaratta for the usual Cup weekend feast of music, rubbing shoulders with musicians and other fans, soaking up the atmosphere of an esteemed and august festival in its 30th year.

But we can enjoy a week of digital offerings instead and hope that in 2021 we can return to the place we love for this great celebration of jazz and blues.

ROGER MITCHELL

PS: For a look back through some images of past festivals from the past 10-plus years, check out Stills in Motion – A Retrospective on Thursday 29 October.

JAZZ FESTIVAL TO GO VIRAL

Flora Carbo

Flora Carbo will perform with Theo Carbo and Sam Anning.    Image: Roger Mitchell

NEWS

These Digital Times
Presented by the Melbourne International Jazz Festival
Date: Saturday, 30 May 2020
Tickets: FREE
For details visit melbournejazz.com

For three Saturdays, starting next week, the MIJF will provide a series of live-streamed concerts for us to enjoy from home, given that in-the-flesh live gigs are not possible. Here’s what the MIJF has released about these digital outings:

Next week, the Melbourne International Jazz Festival was scheduled to present their 23rd festival featuring more than 500 Australian and international artists in over 25 venues across Melbourne.

Instead (due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions), MIJF has adapted quickly to present These Digital Times, an online music festival series featuring local and international artists on the last Saturday of May, June and July.

Completely free, These Digital Times will be live-streamed via the MIJF website direct to YouTube with programming from noon to 10.30pm, including music for kids, career development panels for artists and industry as well as performances from emerging artists and the big names in Australian and international jazz and contemporary music.

Broadcast and recorded in high definition from a Melbourne production studio, the live-stream program for These Digital Times has been shaped around some of the amazing artists who live and work in Melbourne.

STOCK

Craig Fermanis, Hugh Harvey, Julien Wilson and Chris Hale.       Image: Kym Schreiber

The May line-up includes multi-ARIA award-winning vocalist Kate Ceberano performing songs from her forays into jazz as well as the album launch for saxophonist Julien Wilson’s STOCK project that features Craig Fermanis (electric guitar), Chris Hale (bass guitar) and Hugh Harvey (drums).

In the early afternoon ABC Kids favourites, the Teeny Tiny Stevies, will jazz up their tunes for the whole family and ARIA award-winning neo-soul vocalist, Kaiit will close the night out with her honeyed vocals and fierce rhymes.

Mesmerising vocalist Gretchen Parlato will join her partner, internationally acclaimed drummer and composer Mark Guiliana, in a vocal and drum duo project recorded in isolation from their home studio in America.

While violin-wizard, Luca Ciarla, will transcend boundaries between music genres and stream a solo looping violin set direct from Italy.

MIJF CEO Hadley Agrez explains that These Digital Times provides a free and accessible experience for audiences direct to their homes as well as much-needed opportunities for musicians, artists and arts workers during COVID-19 restrictions.

These Digital Times has been conceived and developed in conjunction with The Vizard Foundation and is also supported by the Victorian government through Creative Victoria (as principal government partner) and the City of Melbourne (as major government partner).

“We are very grateful for the generous support provided by our partners, which allows us to pay our artists for their time and work in the same way we usually would for our annual festival,” said Agrez.

“These Digital Times will bring some of the best jazz and contemporary music from around Melbourne and the world direct to people’s homes in a format that ensures our artists, audiences and staff remain safe at all times,” highlighted Agrez.

Following each monthly These Digital Times program, content will be available for another four weeks on the MIJF website.

MIJF will announce the July line-up for These Digital Times soon via the MIJF website and social media channels.

May 30 program:
Noon  Career Development Panel: Surviving & Thriving
1.30pm  Teeny Tiny Stevies (Australia)
3pm  Flora Carbo with Theo Carbo and Sam Anning (Australia)
4pm  Luca Ciarla (Italy)
5pm  Julien Wilson’s STOCK (Australia – album launch)
7pm  Kate Ceberano (Australia)
8.30pm  Gretchen Parlato & Mark Guiliana (USA)
9.30pm  Kaiit (Australia)

June 27 program:

10.30am Nat Bartsch’s Lullaby Project (Australia)
11am Career Development Panel: Old Media, New Media
12pm Kathleen Halloran Trio (Australia)
1.30pm Solomon Sisay (Australia)
3.30pm Federico Casagrande (Italy)
5pm Andrea Keller’s Five Below – Life is Brut[if]al (Australia – album launch)
7pm Joe Chindamo & Olivia Chindamo (Australia)
8pm Joey DeFrancesco (USA)
9.15pm The Sugarfoot Ramblers (Australia)