WYNTON MARSALIS SENDS HIS APOLOGIES

Ausjazz blog previews Stonnington Jazz 2011 — May 19 to May 29

The days are suddenly much colder and the nights have that stay-at-home chill. Many of us are suffering from sore throats, persistent coughs and similar energy-sapping afflictions. So what’s the incentive to venture out to hear live music? During the past few nights I’ve had some of the worst coughing bouts in years, so I sympathise with anyone wanting to hunker down at home. But there are some real spirit-lifting performances coming up at Stonnington Jazz (May 19 to 29) and that’s exactly what we need as winter sets in. So, why not decide to catch one or two of these gigs over the 10 days of this festival? Go on, (to use an expression doing the rounds at our house), you know you want to.

The full program is online at the Stonnington Jazz website, so this preview is merely picking out some highlights — essentially what Ausjazz blog fancies as the gigs not to miss.

One thing to keep in mind about Stonnington Jazz. This is all home-grown talent and there is plenty of it. International artists can be a thrill, but this festival’s strength is that these musicians are ours — inventive and able and with the freedom that comes from being so far from the big names in the United States.

 Sarah McKenzie Sextet
Sarah McKenzie at Stonnington Jazz 2010

The artists who are likely to feature in print media publicity for the festival are probably pianist and vocalist Sarah McKenzie, who will open the festival on Thursday and Friday nights (May 19 and 20) with her sextet; vocalist Katie Noonan, who will perform on May 22 with Elixir (Zac Hurren on sax and Stephen Magnusson on guitar); and Vince Jones & Band plus guests (May 21).

McKenzie is an engaging performer who delivers swinging standards and originals in a forthright and spirited manner that recognises the long history of jazz vocalists. She wowed crowds at Chapel Off Chapel during this festival last year and will return — this time at the Malvern Town Hall — with award-winning Eamon McNelis on trumpet (replacing Pat Thiele) and Alex Boneham on bass (replacing Sam Anning). Julien Wilson will be a special guest on sax. This venue will be larger and acoustically tougher, but McKenzie has the power to fill the hall. She will be launching her new album Don’t Tempt Me (ABC Jazz).

Allan Browne

Festival hopping: Allan Browne performs at Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival.

Ausjazz blog’s list of anticipated highlights begins with drummer and Stonnington Jazz Patron Allan Browne, who on May 22 at 2pm presents a program of musical portraits and poems inspired by some of the great jazz artists he has played with, including Johnny Griffin, Milt Jackson, Art Hodes, Wild Bill Davison, Emily Remler, Buddy Tate, Teddy Wilson, Mal Waldron and Jay McShann. Joining Allan will be members of his quintet — trumpeter Eugene Ball, saxophonist Phil Noy, guitarist Geoff Hughes, bassist Nick Haywood — and trio (Haywood and pianist Marc Hannaford). All those names may look like a laundry list, but Al Browne and his crew have been trying out this new material at some Bennetts Lane gigs on Mondays and, though I have not made it to these gigs, I am certain the result will be moving as well as lots of fun. Jazz and poetry may not always work, but the Browne Quintet suites The Drunken Boat and Une Saison En Enfer are evidence enough that these guys know what they’re doing.

Any opportunity to hear Sydney’s Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra is to be valued. You may be surprised at how a big band can do much more than merely blast away. Under the direction of saxophonist David Theak, JMO is a sensitive, expressive beast. And the finals of the National Big Band Composition Competition will add interest to this outing at Chapel Off Chapel at 7.30pm on Monday, May 23.

Anyone who heard Lost and Found at Wangaratta Jazz some years back, when Paul Grabowsky, Jamie Oehlers and Dave Beck played a standout set of unscripted improvisation, will value the chance to hear Grabowsky and Oehlers. Their 2010 album On A Clear Day explored their take on some standards. These two musicians will show the depth of their musical understanding in a Chapel Off Chapel double bill with Nat Bartsch Trio on May 24.

Stu Hunter

Sweet suite: Stu Hunter at Wangaratta

How suite it is that pianist / composer Stu Hunter‘s two magnificent suites — The Muse and The Gathering — will be played at Chapel Off Chapel on succeeding nights (May 25 and 26). The second work won Contemporary Jazz Album of the Year at the Bell Awards and Best Independent Jazz album in the Independent Music Awards in 2010. Both were huge hits at Wangaratta. I marginally prefer The Gathering, with the larger ensemble adding Phil Slater on trumpet and James Greening on trombone and pocket trumpet to quartet members Julien Wilson (on sax rather than Matt Keegan this time), Cameron Undy (instead of Jonathan Swartz on bass) and Simon Barker (drums).

But the deal is so good it’s hard to believe, because each gig has a substantial other half. Along with The Muse, tenor saxophonist Andy Sugg will fuel controversy over whether jazz stays tied to its apron strings or is let off the leash to explore (apologies for the mixed metaphors). Sugg, with help from Shannon Barnett on trombone, Natalia Mann on harp, Steve Magnusson on guitar, Kate Kelsey-Sugg on piano, Ben Robertson on bass and James McLean on drums, will endeavour to link John Coltrane‘s music with British punk, and use some technologically up-to-date devices to give Coltrane’s later music “radically new contexts”. I understand Wynton Marsalis has sent his apologies.

Scott Tinkler on fire at MJFF Big Arse Sunday 2011

Scott Tinkler on fire at MJFF Big Arse Sunday 2011

The other half of the The Gathering gig will feature four names to strike terror into their instruments and evoke frenzied adulation from their fans: Ian Chaplin, Scott Tinkler, Philip Rex and Simon Barker. On sax, trumpet, bass and drums respectively, these “daring and potent improvisers” (as the program notes put it) will be fathering children … no, sorry, creating a storm of fiery improvisation that will delight body and soul. (I know this because I heard Tinkler with bass and drums on the final night of Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival this year — he’s in great form.)

That this list of highlights is growing too long and in danger of leaving out little is testament to the quality of the programming by artistic director (and trophy-winning golfer) Adrian Jackson. So I’ll gloss over some gigs (Tina Harrod; Bloodlines: Dave Macrae, Joy Yates & Jade Macrae; Joe Chindamo Trio and guests) to mention three more.

Bassist Leigh Barker and The New Sheiks, flush with Jazz Bell Awards success (and cash), will keep things swinging at Chapel Off Chapel on Friday, May 27, giving patrons a chance to catch Eamon McNelis on trumpet. And sharing the stage for another set will be the collectively led Bopstretch, with McNelis, Rajiv Jayaweera (is there anywhere he’s not playing?) on drums, Ben Hauptmann on guitar and Mark Elton on bass. This band will play classic 1950s BeBop era material, with tunes from some famous names.

On the festival’s second Saturday, May 28, Chapel Off Chapel patrons will be treated to a top double bill. Paul Williamson (the saxophonist version) will add to his Hammond Combo guests Geoff Achison (blues fans will be there) on guitar and vocals, James Greening on trombone, Gil Askey on trumpet and vocals, and Bob Sedergreen on keyboards. Get ready for jazz with an R&B flavour. At the same gig, trombonist Shannon Barnett will perform with the quartet that released the album Country in 2010 and toured nationally after being awarded a contemporary music touring program grant.

James Greening

James Greening at Wangaratta in 2010

Finally, Ausjazz blog’s highlights list ends with a combination I would not miss for quids. On Sunday, May 29 at 2pm, in a quartet of revered musicians (Sandy Evans saxophones, James Greening trombone & pocket trumpet, Steve Elphick bass), saxophonist Andrew Robson will perform his arrangements of hymns by Thomas Tallis. And Greening, forming The World According to James with Elphick, Robson and Toby Hall on drums, will perform original compositions. What a way to finish a festival.

As these highlights demonstrate, there is a lot of class to this festival. Because the program revisits some bands and works aired previously either at Stonnington or Wangaratta, I was initially inclined to think there was less breaking of new ground than in past years. Perhaps so, but for anyone who has not had an opportunity to hear these musicians before, and for all those who have heard and want to listen again, Stonnington Jazz has a power of Australian music in store.

ROGER MITCHELL

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