REVIEW: Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues, November 1–3, 2013
It’s not easy to sum up a weekend of music in a few words, but whatever else can be said about the 2013 Wangaratta Jazz and Blues festival, there was an abundance of imaginative playing and exemplary musicianship.
I made it to 22 concerts. None were in the blues marquee, but there was more than enough on the jazz program to keep me occupied.
Frank Sinatra used to sing, “regrets I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention”. I will mention a few regrets, because I left some concerts early or arrived late, reluctantly in each case, and therefore heard only a sample of what almost certainly would have proved a highlight.
Programming to avoid clashes is almost unavoidable, but overlapping gigs do make reviewing difficult. There is no obvious solution.
I think this festival is best summed up by three themes: Ubiquitous Julien Wilson, piano prowess and the wizardy of Australian musicians, including those now living abroad.
First, the weekend of gigs could have been re-named the Wangaratta Julien Festival in honour of the phenomenal playing by saxophonist Julien Wilson in so many line-ups. Julien recently had a close call during surgery in hospital, but recovered to play superbly.
He seemed omnipresent. I heard him in five ensembles. In each his playing displayed almost all the qualities you’d hope to hear from saxophone or bass clarinet, from fiery blasts to deeply resonant mining expeditions or subtle soliloquies.
As I write this I am conscious that at last year’s festival a standout concert featured Wilson with fellow reedsman David Ades, who is now seriously ill and in our thoughts. That concert stays with me.
Many of Julien Wilson’s solos this year will also remain in my memory, among them his freakily good explorations in Rebellious Bird, which he dedicated to Ades.
Among other highlights was his rendition, in his first outing in a quartet format, of Paul Desmond’s Wendy, performed in honour of the recently departed Bernie McGann, and a finely nuanced solo on Deep Night.
Another came with drummer Allan Browne and bassist Sam Anning (on loan from the US) at the launch of their recent album Sweethearts. Empathy, warmth and understanding were evident as the trio members demonstrated how well they work together. It was a joy to hear this, though I had to leave early.
The “high octane” Julien was on show in B For Chicken. And in the Jonathan Swartz Ensemble, Wilson — dubbed Lazarus by the bassist — excelled in Wait Until the Morning.
The second theme of this festival, piano prowess, was evident in finalists for the National Jazz Awards and, appropriately, in the programmed artists. Audiences had the opportunity to experience the different keyboard styles of headline artist Gerald Clayton with his trio and expatriate Australian Barney McAll, both from the US, and Jef Neve from Belgium, as well as established local pianists of international standing in Mike Nock and Paul Grabowsky.
In three concerts Clayton demonstrated poise and prowess along with a sense of ease and total immersion that possibly reflected his classical training from the age of six. Assisted ably by Joe Sanders on bass and Pete van Nostrand on drums, Clayton was able to hold the attention of his audience. Captivating with calmness and depth, rather than drama, he was at his most arresting in Bond: The Cast, which provided tension, energy and propulsion before an encore closed the trio’s Saturday night concert.
In his one festival outing, Neve gave a polished virtuoso solo performance that brought a standing ovation. His fingers almost never stopped as notes cascaded from the keyboard, conjuring creations that were engrossing and powerful, thunderously stormy or graceful and delicate. It felt like a well-rehearsed, classical performance.
By contrast, McAll’s piano — whether with his Non-Compliance Trio in WPAC Theatre on Saturday or solo in Holy Trinity Cathedral on Sunday — was exciting in its drama, power and potential to surprise. Always flamboyant and theatrical in the best tradition of the McAll brothers, Barney combined skill with inventiveness, creativity and flourish. I regret not hearing more than half of his solo outing.
Late on Sunday afternoon, a packed house at WPAC Theatre had a chance to hear the three finalists in the National Jazz Awards, now with a first prize of $10,000. As Steve Barry, Daniel Gassin and Joseph O’Connor each played three pieces, it was evident that judges Nock, Grabowsky and McAll had an incredibly difficult task and that Australia is blessed with a great deal of young talent on this instrument. Choosing the three from 10 finalists during the festival had been hard enough.
O’Connor, from Melbourne, took a risk by deciding to play his composition Sotto Voce solo, but it paid off. He took first prize, followed closely by Barry (Sydney) and Gassin (Melbourne, now living in Paris). All three performances were of such high quality that it is easy to envisage the winners making an impact on world stages.
The piano prowess theme was fittingly rounded out by judges Nock and Grabowsky — the former confirming his power and presence with a solo in Acceptance during his Sunday outing with Wilson and guitarist Steve Magnusson; the latter in his moving solo in Black Saffron with his fiery sextet in the festival’s closing gig.
And that is an ideal segue to the third theme of this year’s festival, which could be summed up as the wizards of Oz. Australian musicians — including many who returned from overseas to play — shone.
That’s not meant to write off international artists. Trumpeter Eric Vloeimans’ misleadingly named Gatecrash, from the Netherlands, was tight and occasionally lively, but ultimately too warm, fuzzy and muffled for my taste, with no sharp edges. Norway’s Froy Aagre Electric demonstrated how well sonorous amplified soprano sax could work with electronic keyboard, well executed by Australian Sean Foran in his first try at bass foot pedals.
But the excitement and adventure came from musicians whose careers developed in this country.
A prime example was the spectacularly successful Drumbling, in which drummers Niko Schauble and Ronny Ferella, along with accordionist Anthony Schulz and vocalists Carl Panuzzo, Michelle Nicole and Gian Slater, paid homage to the drums in a new work of exquisite subtlety, virtuosity and concentration. It deserves a separate review.
Another was Acquacheta, in which Magnusson on guitar, Mirko Guerrini on sax and piano, Frank Di Sario on bass and Schauble on drums made it almost impossible to leave (though I did, reluctantly).
Trombonist Shannon Barnett, on loan from New York, was iridescent with her quartet and groundbreaking with Slater in U.nlock. In Holy Trinity Cathedral, fans of the adventurous would have reveled in Expose with David Tolley, Tony Hicks and Brett Thompson, or the Callum G’Froerer Ensemble. I heard only fragments of these.
Peter Knight’s Way Out West weaved its magic with a new line-up, but has not had time to develop the new material it needs to head in a direction tailored to koto player Satsuki Odamura and guitarist Lucas Michailidis.
Tight Corners, in which pianist Jex Saarelaht and saxophonist Phillip Johnston played works of Monk, Nichols and Lacy, was developing nicely when I made the (retrospectively unwise) decision to leave for another gig.
Other standout gigs featuring Australian artists were the Jonathan Zwartz Ensemble (much more compelling live than on the most recent album) and the classy Nock/Magnusson/Wilson.
I want to end on a high note, so I’ll digress to say that the Jazz Futures concert in which gracious Gerald Clayton ushered in a stream of capable young performers from Monash University was not such a great choice for a prime spot on the final night of the festival. This would have been better scheduled earlier, or on the Monday. There were some great compositions, such as Joe McEvilly’s Siberia and Jessica Carlton’s Not Alone, but the “talent quest” format was cumbersome.
Luckily, and I return to the wizards of Oz theme, the Paul Grabowsky Sextet delivered such a robust, challenging, exhilarating and exciting final festival gig with The Bitter Suite that all moths were driven from the mind and WPAC Theatre.
What a line-up: Grabowsky on piano, Andrew Robson on alto, Jamie Oehlers on tenor, James Greening on trombone, Cameron Undy on bass and Simon Barker on drums. These were the wizards of Oz and they carried this festival into the stratosphere.
Note: Images of the festival will be posted as time permits. Later posts may cover a gig or two in more detail.