Melbourne International Jazz Festival: Opening concert

YOU could say that Charlie Haden, after relishing the opening applause — “Don’t stop, don’t stop” — and spruiking his Liberation Music Orchestra CDs — “You can’t buy these any more… there are no record shops” — turned his back on the audience.

It was standing  room only at BMW Edge on Sunday for Haden (Artist in Residence for the MIJF) and his LMO of Australian stand-ins in what was effectively the opening concert for the festival. In suddenly wintry  Melbourne earlier  that afternoon, the Mell-O-Tones treated Fed Square patrons to some lively swing and dancers Swing Patrol showed us some cool moves on the paving stones. Actis Dato followed with their zany, fun-filled antics.

Charlie Haden and the LMO

But Haden was the attraction. An annoying buzz, possibly caused by a nearby mic being left on, did not help initially, but this was rich music in which to indulge while contemplating the irony that Haden — and arranger/composer Carla Bley — intended the album Not In Our Name as a protest against George W. Bush and his values. There are some tongue-in-cheek references, of course, but this music is often serene and beautiful, albeit martial. Perhaps on this album the LMO was trying to show a better side of America in the dark days before Obama’s rise.

So what were the highlights? Well, it was fantastic (though not surprising, given the standard of local players) to hear Australian musicians with hardly any rehearsal time bringing to life this music that had its roots in the Spanish Civil War. Franco would have been in more trouble had his opponents faced Scott Tinkler or Shannon Barnett. Barnett’s trombone solos in This Is Not America and Amazing Grace were, resepctively, lively, energetic and so rich. Paul Williamson on trumpet was superb in Goin’ Home, bending, soaring and mewling before Phil Noy’s intricate solo on tenor sax.  Stephen Magnusson’s guitar shone in Amazing Grace, Andrew Young on french horn delighted during Sylvio Rodriguez’s Tail of a Tornado, and Tinkler was let out to play in a long version of We Shall Overcome, which also demonstrated Haden’s generosity to his fellow bass player in Sam Anning. Haden stopped playing to clap Anning, and earlier in the concert he expressed his enthusiasm for the younger player with “Yeah, man”.

Haden seems to be a gracious fellow and a real charmer. And his composition Silence was a beauty, breaking from the traditional solo after solo structure to open with Tinkler’s trumpet, add trombone, then french horn, then tuba, then alto sax, then the tenor saxes, then Anning’s bass before Charlie’s bass, Paul Grabowsky on piano (who never tried to push his presence) and Williamson’s trumpet. When did the drums enter? I forget. It built a mounting sense of anticipation, then ended with only the piano and Haden’s bass. It sustained interest and had great beauty.

Charlie Haden and the LMO

The other thing of note was that Charlie Haden, in order to conduct his “Oz LMO”, faced his musicians and not the audience, so that effectively they had a private performance from the master. We could hear the result — and not everyone thought the BMW Edge acoustics did the sound justice — but the musicians on stage could see Haden. And towards the end of Silence, while Grabowsky and Haden played, the others in the LMO seemed to watch, and listen, enthralled.

A great start to MIJF for 2009.

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