Top Marks and thanks for all the memories

Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues 2022
Friday 28 October to Sunday 30 October

REVIEW

Full marks to this festival – not because everything was perfect (it wasn’t), but because it returned, against the odds.

Also because of Mark, Mark and Marc, who, in the front row of the Wangaratta Performing Arts & Convention Centre on Friday evening, helped remind me of what this festival with such an august history is all about: experiences. Rich, memorable ones.

One Marc lives in Wang and has expertly photographed this festival over the years.

Mark and Mark are regulars who drove from Adelaide to hear and enjoy this feast of music, along with the company of those sharing it. We reminisced. We enthused. We were glad to be back. We kept running into each other at gigs, and ultimately at a well known cheese factory in Milawa on Sunday.

That happy-to-be-here feeling was shared by musicians as well as by patrons, whether they were returning after the postponement of the 30th anniversary festival in 2019 followed by an enforced two-year Covid-19 break, or coming to it for the first time. Yes, it was closely preceded by the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, heavy rain and falling trees prompted late venue changes, numbers were down and the program truncated, but on the plus side there were no queues.

Saxophonist Julien Wilson clearly felt elated in Holy Trinity Cathedral on Saturday morning when, in his first solo concert, he eschewed the use of pedals or effects, which are used in his two new albums Meditations and Mutations (see Bandcamp), saying “the room is enough” and choosing to play “some of mine and some standards”.

We delighted in hearing his expressive reedsmanship in this spectacular setting, demonstrating the versatility of his tenor and soprano instruments, the notes floating freely upwards, often well cushioned by air and intermittently percussive.

The lofty cathedral heights were also host to Scott Tinkler’s 7pm Friday concert with guitarist and fellow Tasmanian Julius Schwing, the shimmering horn notes soaring heavenwards like fluid spaghetti or rasping viscerally against the busy plunking, chattering sounds from the strings.

Late on Saturday afternoon, audience members in Holy Trinity experienced the deep growl of Helen Svoboda’s bowed bass together with the expressive, powerful playing of Kari Ikonen (Finland) on piano. Two pieces using Arabic scales called for microtonal adjustments to the grand piano – Taqsim in Maqam Saba and the dramatic, intense Rasthof Sieben in Maqam Rast. Solo pieces brought us the freneticism of Svoboda’s Happy Storm and Ikonen’s deeply evocative Toccatina. It was the perfect setting for such an engrossing duo encounter.

Also fascinating in the cathedral was the unusual pairing of classically trained Natasha Fearnside on bass clarinet with her partner in life Sam Anning on acoustic and electric bass. They played a suite, written during Melbourne’s Covid-19 lockdown, entitled She Gathered Strength in Her Skin. Inspired by the resilience of the city, plus ensuing regeneration and healing, this exploration of timbres felt liturgical, especially so because Anning’s vocal contribution was akin to a chant. The set refreshingly broke new ground.

Wanderlust, however, felt like putting on a pair of most comfortable slippers as this accomplished ensemble took to the WPACC Theatre stage on Saturday afternoon to celebrate their 30th anniversary. The septet led by Miroslav Bukovsky on trumpet treated us to a series of masterful solos in Delicatessence, Bronte Café and Mambo Gumbo before I had to leave, but there was time enough to share in the obvious merriment of irrepressible ’bone player James Greening.   

At noon that day in WPAC Theatre, Stephen Magnusson on guitar was gleeful as he joined Sam Anning bass and Dave Beck drums in a series of smooth segues from tune to tune, ending with pieces by Tom Waits and Archie Roach. There was plenty of swing and few sharp edges to a set palpably as much fun to play as to hear.

The fun with vocalist Jess Hitchcock’s concert at 8pm on Saturday came possibly from guessing who she’d be playing with – the line-up wasn’t in the two-page festival program or even on the website. The smiles came when we realised her band on this occasion comprised Andrea Keller piano, Tamara Murphy bass, Eugene Ball trumpet, James Macaulay trombone and Dave Beck drums. What a band!

Hitchcock, known for her work with Archie Roach, Paul Kelly, Deborah Cheetham and Kate Miller-Heidke, has had a love for jazz since the age of 17. She delivered songs including Taking a Chance on Love and Get Happy, using Ball’s arrangements, with power and ease.

An hour later, also in WPAC Theatre, it was a blast to watch and hear the four Antripodean Collective musicians given the freedom to do anything and take us anywhere with no restrictions other than the time limit. Scott Tinkler led this band of intense improvisers – Erkki Veltheim on five-string electric violin, Ren Walters guitar and percussion, and Simon Barker on drums – in a take-no-prisoners outing that displayed ferocity and vehemence, yet also some quietude between explosive attacks and extended volleys.

In a few instances Walters lifted his guitar and yelled into it, to powerful effect. This was a thrilling event.

Two opening night performances in the theatre provided totally different musical experiences that I’m certain were memorable and rewarding for the audiences as well as performers.

Iro Haarla shows her appreciation after a beautiful outing with Tamara Murphy and James McLean at Wang 2022.

In their first trio outing, Iro Haarla (Finland) on piano teamed with Tamara Murphy on bass and James McLean on drums in a performance brimming with space and interest. Haarla evidently loved the work of the two Australians – saying “Tam and James rock” – as they played five of her pieces plus Kindness Not Courtesy (Murphy) and M31 (McLean).

Haarla, who had alternated between concert harp and piano at the Melbourne jazz festival, was entrancing at the keyboard, dedicating her piece With Thanksgiving to “everything beautiful in this world” and the “good in my life”. McLean was superb throughout at the kit, and in the abstract Waterworn Rocks all three players energetically wove independent yet interlocking paths.

Light in the Sadness closed a beautiful concert that was good for the soul.

An hour later, the super group This World – Mike Nock piano, Jonathan Zwartz bass, Julien Wilson tenor saxophone and Hamish Stuart drums – treated us to an example of why jazz or improvised music offers so much.

They delivered attentiveness, mutual understanding, responsiveness and excellence in execution throughout, playing four pieces off their new album Another Dance, plus the title track from their first album This World and an encore, Riverside, featuring Wilson in a glorious gospel-imbued solo. It was an outstanding gig and a great way finish Friday night.

The decision to hold a program of free concerts in the WPACC Theatre on Sunday no doubt upset some who had paid for weekend festival passes. It also meant that, with five National Jazz Awards finalists competing in the WPACC Hall on Saturday, anyone wanting to hear them play had to miss other concerts over a period of three hours, including judging.

Also, to quibble further, the judges’ presentation to the winners took place in a private area, with results going out via social media, which seemed a pity for those who’d been in the audience to hear all contestants.

I chose the NJA option, unfortunately missing Ball Hanlon & Schulz, the Melbourne Jazz Co-operative’s drumming event “Indivisible” and Andrea Keller’s group PATsy.

Congratulations are due to Peter Koopman, Joshua Meader and Julius Schwing, who won – respectively – $7000 and a Pughouse Studio recording session, $4000 and $2000. As always it was undeniably a tough task for the judges – this year Stephen Magnusson, Fran Swinn and Carl Dewhurst. The band accompanying the contestants – Jo Lawry vocals, Brett Hirst bass, James McLean drums – were excellent.

I’m no judge. But I thought Harry Tinney from Canberra showed sensitivity and expression, as well as giving us some interesting information about his well chosen pieces, including Ambrose Akinmusire’s Henya. Theo Carbo also selected wisely and blew me away (almost literally in the front row) with his high volume shredding in A Short Film. I haven’t heard much since, but loved it.

The lean Sunday program meant I could attend my first ever jazz mass in the cathedral. Tim Neal played piano, his own Hammond and the newly restored Willis pipe organ – it’s a ripper. Rebecca Barnard sang with gusto and the sermon referenced slavery and the blues. The real star for me, other than the skull on Tim Neal’s shirt, was that pipe organ. I’d love to hear Anthony Pateras or a similarly inclined artist give it a whirl next year in a separate festival gig.

An engaging set by Merinda Dias-Jayasinha in her quartet at Merriwa Cheese Factory was warmly received after lunch on Sunday.

Back in town the WPACC Theatre was crowded later for two large ensemble outings. Many were up dancing during the laid back Public Opinion Afro Orchestra performance that closed the festival – much earlier than in previous years – at 6.15pm. There would be no late-night jam session at the Pinsent Hotel this year.

My best final festival moments came earlier, when Travis Woods and the Horns of Leroy welcomed musicians from Jazzaratta on stage, along with energetic vocalist Thando, to bring us Fat’s Domino’s I’m Walkin’, in which young percussionists Henry and Hamish stole the limelight.

It was a fun way to finish.

ROGER MITCHELL

PS: I popped in for a few minutes to hear the Fran Swinn Quartet – look for her new album Old Idea/New Idea on Lionsharecords. Sources close to me said the Angela Davis Quartet was great, as was Showa 44, and Michelle Nicolle Quartet’s Bach project. Clashes were inevitable in such a tight program. I felt for Jiem, the quintet from Sydney who had a half-hour slot.

PPS: More images to be added in due course.

Great ways to escape a sack o’ woe

A fractal tree from Dan Tepfer’s “Natural Machines” at Melbourne’s planetarium. Image: Roger Mitchell

REVIEW

Melbourne International Jazz Festival
14-23 October 2022

Optimism flowed freely in the first Melbourne International Jazz Festival freed from covid-19 lockdowns, pouring into venues filled with animated crowds so gleeful to be waiting with others in anticipation of the live music in store.

Surely the musicians, festival organisers, sponsors, volunteers and even hard-working staff at venues must have felt this surge in excitement, the buzz of many collective success stories.

Yet as we revelled in the opportunities ahead, out there in the real world there was a sack o’ woe. Floods, climate, covid-19 (still taking lives), war, oppression, suffering … the sack was bulging, the list of woes seemingly endless.

The Ecosystem sextet of vocalists and saxophonists. Image: Roger Mitchell

It was surely apt, then, that the fourth leader of the festival’s Take Note gender equity initiative, Flora Carbo, in her opening night concert entitled “Ecosystem” at The Jazzlab, utilised three vocalists (Merinda Dias-Jayasinha, Mel Taylor and Hannah McKittrick)  along with three saxophonists (Carbo, Bernard Alexander and Zac O’Connell) to explore pop duo Sylvan Esso’s question, “How can I be moved when everything is moving?” This could have been a cry from a generation facing overwhelming change.

Drawing on field recordings of sounds gathered during 2021 city lockdowns, the commissioned work had the atypical sextet line-up take us on a texturally rich journey through soundscapes created by the pulsing and swelling of vocal and reed instruments and amplifying the clacking sounds of saxophone keys being released, along with fragmentary lyrics, such as the evocative query, “Why have I stopped looking?”

Amid the bustle and unrest, Ecosystem seemed to be inviting us to be present and possibly to escape the troubled treadmills in our lives.

Another, sobering, perspective on a sack o’ woe came on the festival’s final night in the intimate setting of The Salon at Melbourne Recital Centre in the Australian Art Orchestra’s First Nations Residency Commission.

In a profoundly evocative composition about whales (Moriyawa) and utilising Dhurga language, composer Brenda Gifford strongly voiced Indigenous hurts, speaking these stark words: “Colonisation. War. Loss. Massacres. Loss. Loss.” Her work featured the powerful presence of Joe Brown McLeod – in quietly spoken language, mouth whistles, on didjeridoo and clapsticks – tapping deeply into this country’s ancient past and First Nations peoples connections to Moriyawa.

This was an important message of truth-telling as the nation takes tentative steps towards an Indigenous Voice to Parliament and to treaty, as well as being an immersive experience of the Moriyawa world, ably conveyed by AAO members, in particular Reuben Lewis on trumpet and electronics, and Aviva Endean on bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet and a simple length of black pipe.

In the main auditorium at MRC on 19 October, composer Jeremy Rose’s work “Disruption! The Voice of Drums” was ground-breaking in concept and monumental in scale, placing extraordinary drummers Chloe Kim and her mentor Simon Barker at the front of Earshift Orchestra members on stage to showcase “the power of the drum in disruption, protest, ceremony and healing”.

On three screens above the musicians, Rachel Peachey and Paul Mosig delivered live feeds of images showing protesters, their banners, police responding with force and tear gas, candle-lit vigils and other global challenges of 2020.

It’s impossible to convey the breadth of this musical experience in a few words, but what stood out was the restraint – for the most part – in instruments usually given prominence, and the sheer brilliance of Kim and Barker in delivering drum kit work so varied, finessed and controlled. This was not crash and bash drumming.

Highlights from other orchestra members included the fat, warm trumpet notes of Tom Avgenicos, splendidly bent and raspy in the lower registers, and guitarist Hilary Geddes shredding an array of angular, exciting sounds.

Images were integral to two other MIJF outings demonstrating a welcome willingness by the festival to be adventurous. In both concerts audiences who were not necessarily lovers of jazz or improvisation were treated to exemplary music in unusual and enticing settings.

Dan Tepfer’s “Natural Machines”, aired at The Melbourne Planetarium, Scienceworks in four concerts over two nights, was an absolute standout. Tepfer programmed a Yamaha Disklavier grand piano to respond in real time to his improvisations, allowing us to watch fascinated as keys were played alongside those he was pressing. As well, he created algorithms that translated this jointly created music into visual art projected on the dome of the planetarium.

MIJF CEO and program director Hadley Agrez said this project had taken three years to develop. It was worth the wait.

This concert was a musical as well as a visual delight. Tepfer took us on a journey through counterpoint, canon and fugue, frequencies, fractals, harmonies, intervals (just rhythms – the building blocks of music) and pitches, as well as the ratios of orbiting bodies in space. Meanwhile, lying almost horizontal in our seats, we smiled (well, I did) as abstract and beautiful images slid across our sky, at times streaming towards an image of Tepfer’s hands on the piano keyboard.

Screened images and live music were combined superbly at Darebin Arts Centre on 21 October in a celebration of iconic silent films by Georges Melies. Entitled “The Merry Frolics of Melies”, this outing paired a perfect band with eight short films – including the well known Trip to the Moon – full of magic, fun, slapstick and satirical humour, and the wistful sadness that melodrama does so well.

Composer/saxophonist Phillip Johnston wrote the scores played live to a packed auditorium by this ensemble with Alister Spence piano, Daryl Pratt vibraphone and Lloyd Swanton double bass. Not only were the films appealing and instructive about early cinematic inventiveness, but the variations in styles of music, tempos and use of instruments to sync with the rapid changes on screen were wonderful.

Francesca Remigi at the drum kit. Image: Roger Mitchell

There were no visuals other than those conjured in our minds when drummer Francesca Remigi (Italy) unleashed her compositions on The Jazzlab audience on 15 October with the help of Federico Calcagno (Italy, bass clarinet and clarinet) and three Australian musicians she had met in workshops at Banff, Canada in 2019 – Niran Dasika (trumpet, pocket trumpet), Andrew Saragossi (saxophones) and Helen Svoboda (double bass).

In pieces drawn from two of her albums – Il Labirinto Dei Topi (The Rat’s Labyrinth) and The Human Web – and inspired by thought-provoking explorations of social dysfunction and decadence, along with the negative effects of social media, Remigi led the quintet in an intense and utterly engrossing set that was a clear festival highlight.

Voice-overs and sound grabs added to mayhem that evoked conflict, anguish and pain, yet also some eventual relief. Horns were percussive, the double bass tapping higher and then deeply resonant lower chords, and drama mingled with gentle chaos. In the closing Gomorra, Remigi’s drums melded seamlessly with Dasika’s horn. It was a brilliant set.

It was probably not ideal to hear Sydney quartet Tangents so soon afterwards as they aired material from their 2021 release Timeslips & Chimeras, because they delivered slow growth, evolution and a sense of timelessness in their pieces. Evan Dorrian was excellent on drums and percussion, while Peter Hollo’s cello added depth as the music ebbed and flowed, yet never built tension.

Changes were key to the music aired the following night at The Jazzlab in which award-winning Sydney guitarist Hilary Geddes led a quartet with Matthew Harris piano, Helen Svoboda (omnipresent in this festival) bass and Alexander Inman-Hislop drums to play compositions from her debut album Parkside (ABC Jazz).

This outing was a definite festival highlight, in part because of the band’s ability to adjust tempo, dynamics and mood within songs and also because these musicians were having so much fun while performing. Their mood was infectious. Geddes entranced the crowd with a solo in an unusual, but beautiful ending to a fabulous concert.

Later, at 9.30pm, forceful drummer Pheroan akLaff (USA) was teamed with Sunny Kim (South Korea) on vocals, Mike Nock on piano, Peter Farrar on saxophone and Helen Svoboda on bass in what seemed an unequal battle. The clear, pure Kim vocals were often lost amid the onslaught of akLaff’s ferocity at the kit and the result was at times more akin to a spectator sport. Many in the audience no doubt loved such full-on playing from the virtuosic akLaff and Farrar’s matching reed retorts, and Nock’s energy was amazing, but full tilt is best in small doses (my view only).

The most enjoyable piece in the set was the closing Andrew Hill composition Gone to Say Goodnight.

Mike Nock returned to the piano – tuning troubles notwithstanding – the following night to revisit his much-loved 1982 album Ondas (ECM) recorded in Oslo with Eddie Gomex on bass and Jon Christensen drums. In two concerts at The Jazzlab he was joined by emerging talents Jacques Emery and Chloe Kim.

From the long and engrossing opening piece Forgotten Love, Nock was unsurprisingly superb, while uncharacteristically referring to charts due to the passing of time since the album’s release. There is such clarity, space and sense of unhurried propulsion in this album, so it was a delight to hear the master deliver it live.

I am happy to be contradicted, but there didn’t always seem to be complete understanding early on by Emery and Kim about when it was best to intervene. Perhaps I was longing for a repeat of interactions on the recording that seemed so perfect. But as the set progressed the trio seemed better integrated. This outing was a treat.

Another was in store the following night. Sydney bassist Jonathan Zwartz introduced his work, Suite Suomi, written for harpist and pianist Iro Haarla (Finland), with a quotation from her compatriot, poet Eeva Kilpi, entitled Even Nature Gives You No Choice:

“When you have seen a cloud in the lap of a pond;
and the moon between the waterlilies;
inevitably you are at the mercy of your own soul.”

We were asked not to clap until the end of this compelling collaboration featuring Haarla, Zwartz, Julien Wilson on tenor sax, Phil Slater on trumpet, Ben Hauptmann on guitar and Hamish Stuart on drums. This often sombre suite contained so much – a pulse seeming to emulate the heartbeat of the Earth, a slow piano meditation by Haarla, a unity of strings between concert harp and Hauptmann’s instrument, a bass solo in which Zwartz took us to beautiful places, his final note lingering in the stillness.

After much that was solemn, Hauptmann’s catchy infusion of country-style guitar near the end was welcome.

This concert was a moving testament to a love of the natural world shared by Haarla and Zwartz.

The penultimate night of the festival featured two distinctly different outings. Brooklyn-based Chilean tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, in the third of her MIJF concerts at The Jazzlab, delivered a dispassionate set of material from her album 12 Stars, with quartet members Lage Lund guitar, Pablo Menares double bass and Kush Abady drums.

The influence of Aldana’s 12 years in New York showed in the cool feel of this music, with Lund’s guitar mostly subdued and Abady’s efforts at the kit not resulting in much propulsion until the final Los Ojos de Chile, which primed the audience to seek an encore – not possible as the players had to fly, literally.

By contrast, The What Ifs at 9.30pm launched their new digital album Keep It Simple in a manner characteristic of this lively and beautifully balanced Melbourne quintet bristling with talent. The band – Paul Williamson trumpet, Scott McConnachie saxophones, Miro Lauritz vibraphone, Helen Svoboda (again) bass and Dylan Van Der Schiff drums – builds immersive tension through carefully incorporating complexity, adding in blistering horn solos, texturally rich bowed bass and exquisite vibrato dances. This is a group to watch … and hear.

The final of 14 concerts for me was at 9.30pm on 23 October, featuring New York-based guitarist Quentin Angus in a quintet with Jo Lawry vocals, Steve Barry piano, Sam Anning electric bass and Ben Vanderwal drums playing mostly tunes from the expatriate’s 2022 album The State of Things.

These were diverse, jumping from the lightness of Pure Imagination and Somewhere Over the Rainbow to the title track, which took us to dark moments in recent history. The most moving piece, Mila, was a piano and guitar duet reflecting the struggle and happiness that followed the traumatic premature birth of Angus’s daughter, Mila, played over a recording of her heartbeat.

It remains only to conclude with a tribute to The Rookies, who ably hosted Late Night Jams throughout the festival. Many antics resulted, I’m told, but one of the craziest must have surely been the invasion of The Jazzlab jam on the final night by a band and guests from a Jewish wedding, leading to wild music and manic dancing that was indeed a fitting end to a fantastic festival.

ROGER MITCHELL

PS: Thanks to festival and venue staff for assistance throughout.

Congratulations

Well done to winners of the APRA AMCOS Art Music Awards for 2022, which were presented tonight.

Taking home the award for Work of the Year: Jazz was Gian Slater’s Grey is Ground album which marks the artist’s sixth solo release and explores the unknowns and mysteries of day-to-day life. Gian is a prolific vocalist and composer, whose approach incorporates wordless singing and improvisation, song writing; electronics and extended vocal techniques; new music and contemporary composition. She has been a multiple finalist in the prestigious Freedman Fellowship, Melbourne Music Prizeand Bell Awards and was the recipient of the MJFF Apra Composers Commission, Creative Australia Fellowship and the PBS Young Elder of Jazz – as well as having also recently won a Green Room Award in composition for theatre production Song For a Weary Throatby Rawcus Theatre and Invenio Singers. You can listen to the album here.

This year Performance of the Year: Jazz/Improvised Music has been awarded to Jeremy Rose & The Earshift Orchestra featuring Simon Barker and Chloe Kim, for their performance of their collaborative work, Disruption! The Voice of Drums. You may recall this thrilling concert-length tribute to the timeless, visceral and disruptive power of the drum having its world premiere at the 2021 Sydney Festival. Jeremy, Simon and Chloe. You can check out a clip of the work here.