AS the dust settled on the Steinway grand piano in Wangaratta’s new Performing Arts Centre at the start of Cup week, the man wheeling out boxes of unsold CDs admitted sales had been “well down” this year.
The 20th annual improvised music feast, now known simply as Wangaratta Jazz, was over, but punters would relive the gigs to decide their favourites.
In the stalls there had been talk of a different vibe this year, with fewer big international drawcards, slightly smaller crowds and less of a buzz about town. If so, the festival was returning to its roots — delivering quality international musicians who were not household names. After all, are big names or ever-expanding crowds essential for a great festival?
The 20th outing had delivered a Cup field of talent, including two refreshing German ensembles plus enough youth and glamour to help blow away any cobwebs clinging to the image of jazz.
Wangaratta Jazz has a way of putting things into perspective. Cameras had been snapping excitedly all weekend over the undeniable talent of New York bassist Linda Oh, formerly of Perth. But the abundance of home-grown ability was evident throughout the festival, illustrated with gusto by bassist Philip Rex and saxophonist Jamie Oehlers in the closing gig, the Paul Grabowsky Sextet.
The real winners at Wang are the patrons. The festival is not a race. But there are favourites, whether for hard core jazz fans or those who just love to be entertained. A form guide shows the difficulty of picking a victor.
New York trumpeter Charles Tolliver led Sydney’s Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra in two tightly directed concerts that demonstrated his conducting finesse and the attentiveness of a big band with fine soloists.
But Tolliver’s most resplendent solos were kept for his quartet with pianist Mike Nock, drummer Tommy Crane and bassist Oh. They had never played together, but from the third piece, Stanley Cowell’s Effi, to the set’s end the ensemble jelled. Nock excelled and Oh, 25, was a standout – calm, measured, melodic and assured.
All eyes were on the drummer in Friday’s outing by the US/Israel/Australia quartet featuring Ari Hoenig, who loves to vary the pitch of his instrument. His chromatic plays on Bobby Timmons’ Moanin’ brought a roar of approval.
And late Friday Scott Tinkler assembled two trumpeters, two drummers and two guitarists, with acoustic bass and piano, for a continuous piece entitled Folk. It certainly was not folk music, but its parts evolved slowly into a complete, mesmerising whole. Tinkler’s sound became muscular, and that of trumpeter Phil Slater pure gravel.
But arguably the festival highlight involved a different trumpeter – Manhattan School of Music graduate Ambrose Akinmusire – in the second outing for the Linda Oh Trio. On Saturday Oh seemed competent, but tense in the trio, but by Sunday she had relaxed. However Akinmusire stole the limelight with his fragile opening in Patterns, and later produced heart-stoppingly beautiful chirrups, bends and pedals, creating rhythm, percussion and deep feeling with few notes and little air.
The Trio’s standout was a new piece, To Not Be Broken, including an excerpt from a documentary on Nairobi slum dwellers by Oh’s brother-in-law, Bena Otiene Wandei.
A close second came on Sunday in Holy Trinity Cathedral, an ideal setting for saxophonist Andrew Robson’s quartet to perform his arrangements of the hymns of Thomas Tallis. James Greening on trombone and pocket trumpet, Steve Elphick on acoustic bass and Robson were superbly evocative, but a Sandy Evans solo on The Second Tune took the prize with fat notes and shimmering, burbling vibrato that delved deep into the earth.
In a photo finish for third place among the international musicians were Ari Hoenig’s quartet and two German ensembles – the engaging pianist Carsten Daerr’s playful, inventive trio and vivacious pianist Laia Genc’s Liaison Tonique, which added some local firepower in Adam Simmons on saxophones and contra alto clarinet.
US vocalist Kendra Shank had the range and emotive power to move a packed theatre, proving again that an artist with personality will win fans every time. Shank’s skilled accompanists — pianist Tim Stevens, bassist Ben Robertson and drummer Dave Beck — seemed bemused by her high praise, but deserved it.
Other locals to impress mightily were Mike Nock on piano and Niko Schauble on drums in an engrossing improvisation, John McAll’s Black Money sextet, the excitingly adventurous Band of Five Names and bold explorers Pateras/Baxter/Brown.
Twenty years ago Paul Grabowsky arrived at the first Wangaratta jazz festival in a new BMW. This year he came by train. That may have been a sign of the hard times, but as his sextet played his composition Angel, from Tales of Time and Space, all the punters who had stayed until the end were winners.
An abridged version of this review appeared in the Herald Sun, Melbourne on November 4.