Cassandra Wilson in concert. Picture by Scott Penner, Canada

Cassandra Wilson in concert. Picture by Scott Penner, Canada

Ausjazz Blog previews the Melbourne International Jazz Festival 2013 and finds the program highly accessible and aiming to appeal to audiences that may not be attracted to “jazz”


It’s time to get excited. There is less than a month to go before three key jazz festivals in Melbourne bring out crowds of music lovers attracted by the buzz and the hype to hear some live improvised music.

Hard-working musicians, as well as the proprietors and staff at the city’s many excellent jazz clubs, probably wonder why so many patrons who find their way out of the woodwork during festivals are not sighted at other times, but that’s been a reality for years.

Festivals are fantastic because they raise the profile of improvised music, attract media coverage that is not available during the rest of the year and, it is hoped, provide a taste of the adventurous artistic endeavour that is always on offer throughout the year — at intimate venues with low admission prices.

The festival season opens on Sunday, May 5, with the Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival 2013 APRA Composers Commission Concert at Northcote Town Hall as part of a larger event from 2pm-8pm. Every year this festival features an inventive commissioned work and this year’s will be pianist Darrin Archer’s “Drunken Taxicabs of Absolute Reality: Howl to music”, which refers to ‘Beat’ writer Allen Ginsberg’s poem.

Next is Stonnington Jazz, from Thursday, May 16 to Sunday, May 26, featuring Australian musicians in a program devised by artistic director Adrian Jackson, who is also responsible for the annual Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues.

More on these festivals later.

The festival with the biggest budget and international artists, the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, runs from Friday, May 31 until Sunday, June 9. Conceived by artistic director Michael Tortoni, the 2013 program has as its theme the exploration of conversations between musical styles — in particular exchanges between jazz and popular music.

Full details of the concerts, artists and venues are available on the MIJF website.

This preview is intended to pick out some highlights that may not gain as much attention as they deserve, as well as giving a guide of sorts as to what patrons may expect.

For a number of years now the MIJF has set out to broaden its appeal. This year’s program is no exception, as shown by the links to popular music. A prime example is Here Comes the Night at the Palais Theatre, in which Joe Camilleri, Vince Jones, Vika Bull and the 14-piece Voodoo Sheiks Orchestra will perform songs by Van Morrison. (I’d bet that pianist John McAll will be playing up a storm in this.)

Commenting on the Van Morrison gig, Tortoni told a media briefing that, “I guess this year we are really going to be quite broad, from the heaviest New York avant garde improvisers to the highly accessible artists as well, and this is obviously on the side of the highly accessible.”

So, before delving into anything that may not appeal to a wider audience, it’s worth mentioning the concerts that will draw crowds.

The MIJF opening gala event on May 31 at the Palais Theatre, Everybody Wants to Rule the World, will bring a crowd favourite — young pianist vocalist, arranger and composer Sarah McKenzie — back from Boston to be musical director in a concert of jazz covers, pop and rock masterpieces. The gala will explore the music of artists such as Led Zeppelin, Coldplay, Paul Simon, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Prince and Sting. Jazz vocalist Michelle Nicolle, special guest Mahalia Barnes will join McKenzie and her band for this outing.

To help celebrate the festival opening, at 1pm on June 1 Southbank will host the New Orleans Second Line Street Party featuring a seven-piece Rebirth Brass Band playing vintage New Orleans jazz with heavy funk, soul, hip-hop and rhythm and blues.

The line-up for a free opening concert at Fed Square from 2pm that day will be announced closer to the festival.

Still on concerts bound to be popular, singer/songwriter Cassandra Wilson returns to Australia after almost a decade to perform at Hamer Hall on the festival’s closing night, June 9. Wilson, who joined Blue Note Records in 1992 and released the landmark album Blue Light ’Til Dawn, interprets vintage blues, country and folk music in fresh and creative ways. She has a swag of awards.

Another artist with a long list of honours is Cuban pianist, bandleader, composer and arranger Chucho Valdes, who will bring his Afro-Cuban Messengers to Hamer Hall on June 8. Revered as one of Cuba’s greatest jazz pianists, Valdes grew up with Latin jazz and Cuban folk music. He is the son of pianist Bebo Valdés, who directed Havana’s famous Tropicana night club band.

Finally in this list of crowd pleasers, on June 8 the Melbourne Town Hall will host 774’s Roaring Swing, a night of hot jazz and dance recalling the nightlife and dance styles of New York City in the 1920s. Leigh Barker and The New Sheiks will join Michael McQuaid and his Red Hot Rhythmakers in firing up dancers as members of Swing Patrol teach the charleston to the uninitiated. This should be a roaring success.

So what concerts are likely to be the festival highlights without necessarily being immediately accessible or hugely popular?

Maria Schneider

Maria Schneider (Image supplied)

The most exciting outing of MIJF 2013 for me will be at the Melbourne Recital Centre, where two contemporary big band composers, America’s Maria Schneider and Canada’s Darcy James Argue will bring their charts to life via Sydney’s Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra, led by David Theak.

I have loved the inventive, collaborative works of Schneider, as epitomised on albums such as Evanescence, Allegresse and Concert in the Garden, as well as the way the US composer uses ArtistShare to provide access to the creative process. Canadian Argue’s work with his Secret Society, often described as “steampunk-inspired”, has also drawn critical acclaim.

This should be a standout as both composers have their way with the Mothership Orchestra, which is one of Australia’s finest big bands.

Among other artists in the festival’s Modern Masters series definitely worth catching will be the driving rhythms of US bassist Christian McBride’s trio (Melbourne Recital Centre, June 1) US saxophonist James Carter, with his Organ Trio (MRC, June 7). This is also a chance for lovers of the Hammond B3 to hear that wonderful instrument played by Gerard Gibbs.

Jazz fusion — an area Tortoni says MIJF has not done much with in the past — will be given an airing on June 4 at MRC by US guitarist Mike Stern (Blood Sweat & Tears, Miles Davis) in his band with drummer David Weckl, tenor saxophonist Bob Franceschini and bassist Tom Kennedy. Tortoni describes Stern as “one of the greatest electric guitarists of our generation”.

A new series for MIJF this year is Explorations in Jazz which Tortoni says “highlights the current directions in jazz and the vast array of musical styles being explored by contemporary musicians”.

Under this very wide umbrella are offerings as diverse as the energetic Snarky Puppy with Alison Wedding (Forum Upstairs, June 1), “jazz literate hip-hop loving” Stephen Bruner aka Thundercat, (The Forum, June 7) supported by locals Hiatus Kaiyote, the genre-bending five-piece band Kneebody (Forum Upstairs, June 2), a transcendental odyssey led by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (The Hi-Fi, June 1) and the hypnotic grooves of Erimaj (Bennetts Lane Jazz Club, June 7).

For me the gems in this Explorations series are likely to be Paul Grabowsky’s Shapeshifter (Forum Upstairs, June 2) and Maria Schneider exploring collective improvisation with Monash University music students (Alexander Theatre, Monash University, June 8).

In my experience, smaller venues usually offer the most exciting musical experiences, if only because we have the chance to feel totally immersed in music being played so close to us we can see the interaction occurring.

This year, in a partnership deal with MIJF, Club Sessions at The Paris Cat Jazz Club and Dizzy’s Jazz Club have been listed on the program, though the artists are not booked by the festival. This will allow these venues — which, along with Uptown Jazz Cafe provide a feast of live music all year — to share in the patronage that a festival always attracts.

The “official” Club Sessions at Bennetts Lane Jazz Club have some interesting collaborations. Israeli-born guitarist Gilad Hekselman, now in New York, will join the Jamie Oehlers Trio on May 31 in a set that will see bassist Sam Anning visiting from NYC.

Avant garde New York ensemble Open Loose will renew a collaboration with local saxophonist extraordinaire David Ades on June 3 as well as playing separately on June 4.

Expatriate Australian pianist/composer Sean Wayland will join Kneebody’s drummer Nate Wood and Oz bassist Brett Hirst for some “electro-pop meets modern fusion” on June 4.

James Carter will join in a sax fest with Julien Wilson on June 6, backed by the power and finesse of Phillip Rex on bass and ex-expatriate Danny Fischer, back from New York, on drums.

Special treats from local musicians include the world premieres on June 1 of Night and Day, which guitarist Tim Willis created with The End via the 2013 PBS Young Elder of Jazz Commission, and on June 3 of the Allan Browne Trio’s Lost in the Stars inspired by the Zodiac Suites of composers Mary Lou Williams and Karlheinz Stockhausen. These should be marked as concerts not to be missed.

Australian quartet Red Fish Blue will launch its second album, The Sword and the Brush, on June 2, followed by a separate concert in which Jordan Murray on trombone and Paul Williamson on trumpet will join the Rob Burke and Tony Gould Quartet.

The Mike Stern Band will perform in a rare club session on June 9.

It’s always worth investigating bands from outside the US, because they often have a fresh, interesting approach. On offer this year at Bennetts Lane are Kekko Fornarelli Trio from Italy (June 5), Omri Mor Trio from Israel exploring North African Andalusian music (June 6) and David Helbock Trio from Austria (June 8).

From vocalists performing covers and the Van Morrison Songbook to swinging dance, hip-hop and fusion, this year’s festival is certainly eclectic and highly accessible. Hard core fans of straight-ahead jazz may find the pickings a little lean, but there will undoubtedly be unexpected highlights.

It’s time to gear up for a few nights out at live music in Melbourne.

For full program details visit the Melbourne International Jazz Festival website.


One response to “DON’T MENTION THE J WORD

  1. Pingback: Melbourne in May part 1 | My City Melbourne

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s