Ausjazz blog reviews the 2012 Wangaratta Jazz and Blues Festival, finding vocalists draw the crowds, but highlights come close to home and in collaborations with visiting artists
Sunday morning at 10 is too early for jazz fans, so few gathered in the smaller venue at Wangaratta’s Performing Arts Centre to hear ABC presenter Gerry Koster let that perennial question loose on his panel of four musicians: Is jazz dead?
The answer, of course, had been delivered resoundingly in the opening concerts of this 23rd annual festival on Friday evening and throughout Saturday, and would be confirmed later on the Sunday and on Monday.
Koster’s panelists dismissed the idea as ridiculous, yet their responses were full of insights. Trumpeter and composer Phil Slater observed that jazz is not theatre, but a musical conversation in which ideas are thrown in, taken up or forgotten, with the personalities of the artists emerging during the discussion.
The new festival board, facing substantial financial difficulties, must take seriously not the persistent bleats about the demise of jazz, but how to ensure this music attracts patrons. There were clear signs that Wangaratta Jazz and Blues Festival in 2012 is a little leaner and the purse strings a little tighter.
It helped that this year’s National Jazz Awards, won by Sydney’s Kristin Berardi in a tight contest with Kate Kelsey-Sugg and Liz Tobias, featured vocalists. Everyone loves a singer, and there were queues for every vocal performance.
Artistic director Adrian Jackson has to consider his choice of US soul singer Gregory Porter and young New York-based French vocalist Cyrille Aimee as a big success — they played to packed houses — but they did not provide the inventiveness that others on the program delivered in spades.
Aimee has an engaging stage presence and knows how to woo an audience, but her voice did not offer the variation offered by the three jazz awards finalists. Porter, also a likeable performer, warmed to his task during his single outing, delivering a swinging, bluesy version of Nat Adderley’s Work Song and a spirited closing rendition of 1960 What? Porter’s rich baritone is delivered with feeling, but, like his signature kangol hat, does not change much.
Overseas artists who may not be “big names” here, but who left us with a lot to savour were Lighthouse from the UK, Trio M from the USA, and No Tango Quartet from Germany, with the latter two also combining with local musicians to great effect.
In two performances, Lighthouse was polished, dazzling and articulate, with each trio member — Simon Garland on reeds, Gwilym Simcock on piano and the irrepressibly enthusiastic Asaf Sirkis on percussion — making virtuosity look easy. Sirkis excelled on bass udu and the Swiss hang drum, its B flat pentatonic scale producing amazing sounds in his hands.
Simcock’s free-flowing solo performance in Holy Trinity Cathedral on Saturday showed his classical training to great effect, but after a while I wished for his swelling and subsiding streams of notes to leave behind the decorative and usher in some fire, dissonance or tension.
Trio M with guests on Saturday night provided exquisite drama in exchanges between local trumpeters Phil Slater and Scott Tinkler, and between Slater and the trio’s pianist Myra Melford, helped along by superb work on drums and percussion from Simon Barker and Trio M’s Matt Wilson. Mark Dresser on bass added edgy, but deeply resonant bow work.
Some may have felt the Australian guests had too much say in this collaboration, taking Trio M away from its usual style. But on Sunday in the WPAC Theatre the visitors in their usual line-up delivered superbly crafted excursions into timbres, textures and rhythms, each taking delight in stretching their instruments.
Melford is a firebrand at the piano, delivering punch well above her diminutive stature. Trio M members are as skilled as the lads in Lighthouse, but the US group gives the impression that its music is always champing at the bit to be new and changing.
There were two opportunities to hear the collaboration between No Tango Quartet and the Andrea Keller Quartet. This was of interest not only because they were playing new compositions for the two quartets by visiting reedist Christina Fuchs and local pianist Keller, but also because of the additions to each line-up.
Keller’s band gained a bassist and accordionist, while Fuchs’s group gained a pianist, trumpeter and an additional saxophonist. Two on drums and percussion completed an octet that proved compelling in its renditions of new pieces such as Keller’s seven-movement Meditations on Light and Fuchs’s Textures of Memory. Venues were packed for these concerts, which showed how well musicians work together and talented composers can be creative at a distance.
Collaborations such as those involving Keller’s quartet and Tinkler , Slater and Barker, are a feature of Jackson’s programming at Wangaratta and Stonnington festivals. These proved to be standouts.
It is not a competition, but Australian talent also threatened to take the honours of this international festival with outings such as the David Ades Quartet launching the album A Glorious Certainty, guitarist Stephen Magnusson’s band launching the eponymous album MAGNET, Phil Slater’s reworking of Peter Sculthorpe’s compositions in The Sun Songbook, Baecastuff’s voyage into Pitcairn Islander history with Mutiny Music, pianist Mike Nock’s encounter with Magnusson, Adam Simmons’ trio Origami and Canberra bassist Hannah James’s trio.
Alto saxophonist Ades has been seriously ill, but in WPAC Theatre on Saturday he was on fire, well assisted by Julien Wilson on tenor, Jonathan Zwartz on bass and former expat Danny Fischer (he’s back home) in great form. Joe the Kid, in honour of Ades’s dad, was ripping stuff, and Dreaming in Colour provided some great exchanges between Wilson and Ades. Marching Orders had some angst, delivered in a blistering fashion by Ades, and the closing piece had Wilson on bass clarinet before an all-you-could-ask-for solo by Ades. This was a top gig.
I struggled to leave early from two concerts featuring Magnusson, because they were so captivating. MAGNET gave an airing of Carl Pannuzzo’s amazing vocal gymnastics in a memorable WPAC Hall outing, and pianist extraordinaire Mike Nock shared the same stage combining lots of improvisation with each other’s compositions. For some patrons, these undoubtedly were highlights.
Mutiny Music, featuring saxophonist Rick Robertson’s talented ensemble Baecastuff playing his compositions, used the Pitcairn language in a harmonically rich exploration of voice and instruments that called to my mind Andrew Robson’s tribute to Thomas Tallis, Bearing the Bell. Some may have found this too slow, but I loved it.
On Sunday in the WPAC Theatre, Phil Slater, pianist Matt McMahon, Simon Barker, guitarist Carl Dewhurst, bassist Brett Hirst and violist Erkki Veltheim brought Sculthorpe’s music into the world of jazz improvisation. I found this work was able to wash all the detritus from body, mind and spirit. It was calming and renewing.
By comparison, the earlier outing in St Patrick’s Hall by the trio Origami was invigorating, taking the audience to unexpected places.
I caught only a part of bassist Hannah James’s WPAC Hall gig with Casey Golden on piano and Ed Rodrigues on drums, but it stood out as engrossing, robust jazz.
A clear hit with the packed audience on Sunday evening in the WPAC Theatre was Joseph Tawadros on oud with brother James on the tambourine-like eck and frame drum, with Steve Hunter on bass guitar and Matt McMahon on piano. The brothers are brilliantly virtuosic on their instruments, but I had hoped they would venture a little further from the world music style and more into jazz. Heal — in which Slater sat in on trumpet — and Café Riche were highlights.
There was so much on offer at this year’s Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues — and I have not mentioned any blues gigs — that this review leaves out a lot.
But in a program that was light on well-known international drawcards and heavy on vocalists, the most significant moments came from either Australian musicians or in their collaborations with talented visitors eager to go out on a limb. In either case, this annual festival clearly demonstrates that jazz is far from dead.
Pictures of festival gigs will be posted separately at a later date.
Among concerts missed (it’s impossible to get to everything): Marc Hannaford Trio, Browne-Hannaford-Anning, Gould-Manins-Marinucci, Tim Stevens Trio, Tim Stevens solo, Scott Tinkler Quartet, Mark Dresser and Scott Tinkler, Murphy’s Law, Alex Stuart.