Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett’s all-female sextet Maqueque     Image supplied

PREVIEW: Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues, October 30 to November 2, 2015

Ausjazz takes a look at what’s in store as a landmark festival of jazz and blues hits the reset button in a bid to broaden its appeal and invite new patrons into Wangaratta’s moonlit gardens to sample genre-hopping musical combos and chill-out lounges


After 25 years of fairly settled venues and a reasonably clear distinction between its constituent musical parts of jazz and blues, the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues is heading in new directions for 2015.

According to Chair of the Festival Board, Paul Squires, “it’s time to hit refresh”. Under the banner of “Welcome to Jazz Country”, the festival is moving the focus of non-ticketed performances from Reid Street to the Ovens Riverside Precinct, “where the spirit of jazz, blues and other musical influences will fill the streets, laneways and green spaces” along the Ovens River, including Riverside Square.

King George V Gardens, Wangaratta

King George V Gardens, Wangaratta

And, in nearby King George Gardens, a new stage for ticketed concerts is billed as “the place where jazz gets deconstructed, shaken up and unpacked” in “a creative collision of spring sounds that are on everyone’s playlist”.

It all sounds quite different. We are told “the best surprises will happen after dark, so by night the moonlit gardens will house a starlight salon, dance zone, genre-hopping musical combos and chill-out lounges”.

As Squires puts it, “we want to activate new audiences to buy into the festival experience” because “it’s time to get amongst the music, try something new, take a risk … by exploring the adventurous music embedded throughout our rural city”.

At this point I can imagine some longstanding festival fans diving for cover in either the Blues Marquee or the Wangaratta Performing Arts Centre Theatre, but Artistic Director Adrian Jackson assures hard-core fans that apart from gigs at the new Gardens Stage “we have a line-up that absolutely upholds the stylistic balance and standards of previous years”.

Evidently Jackson is bringing his considerable programming skills to bear on a difficult conundrum. As he says, “there is an inherent contradiction in presenting a program full of daring, creative, original jazz, and expecting that program to have instant appeal to the typical punter in the street. At the same time, you don’t build an audience for jazz and blues by presenting music that has nothing to do with jazz or blues.”

The Gardens Stage will therefore feature “artists who would be known to the general public, whose music is readily accessible, and who still display a high level of musicianship”.

The line-up in King George Gardens has a nostalgic feel and its broader appeal is evident. Joe Camilleri will perform with his 12-piece RnB big band, The Voodoo Sheiks, and rock ’n’ roll saxophone player Wilbur Wilde will bring his track record as a jazz player to the fore. Emma Pask and Darren Percival of The Voice fame, along with a quartet led by pianist Gerard Masters, will interpret the music of Neil and Tim Finn in Finn-Land.

Phil Stack

Phil Stack at Wangaratta in 2014

Rai Thistlethwayte, Matt Smith and Phil Stack of rock band Thirsty Merc may also tap into their jazz instincts in an acoustic set, and Paul Williamson will fire up his Hammond Combo for a jazz party that has long been an audience favourite at Stonnington’s annual jazz festival.

Reid Street regulars Luke R. Davies and the Blues Brothers 3677 will be hoping to draw in their usual fans. Sydney quartet Arabesk, Sam Keevers’ 15-piece Latin jazz / Afro-Cuban jazz ensemble Los Cabrones and eight-piece band Black Jesus Experience are likely to set toes tapping.

And let’s not forget the irrepressible, talented and entertaining James Morrison, who will bring to the Garden Stage a big band and groups of students from the inaugural year of the James Morrison Academy of Music in Mt Gambier, South Australia.

There is plenty of nostalgia also at the Blues Marquee, especially with two concerts by sixties favourites Canned Heat, featuring veterans Larry “The Mole” Taylor and Adolfo “Fito” de la Parra along with Dale Spalding on harmonica, guitar and lead vocals and John Paulus on lead guitar. I’m hoping their Fried Hockey Boogie makes the set list.

Others are better to properly preview the Blues Marquee program, but it includes Russell Morris, Harper, Old Gray Mule, Joe Camilleri with The Black Sorrows and Ash Grunwald.

With the festival branching out to broaden its appeal, where does that leave rusted on jazz fans who will gather in the WPAC Theatre and Hall, at St Pat’s Hall and Holy Trinity Cathedral?

Well, there’s plenty to whet the appetite, although international artists performing in the main jazz venues are not such well-known drawcards as in years when budget constraints were less limiting.

Dave Douglas

Dave Douglas with Geoff Hughes and Craig Beard at Monash University

In March last year US trumpeter Dave Douglas visited Monash University to have the Monash Art Ensemble rehearse and perform the nine movements of his suite Fabliaux for four ensembles. Changes of emphasis made the whole suite alive and interesting and, as an Ausjazz review said at the time, “there was, literally, never a dull moment”.

Douglas will join the ensemble to launch the recording of Fabliaux and play a duo concert with pianist Paul Grabowsky, as well as leading his quintet with saxophonist Jon Irabagon, pianist Matt Mitchell, drummer Rudy Royston and bassist Linda Oh, who grew up in Australia and has been a big hit previously at Wangaratta.

A solo outing by Philadelphia musician Mitchell, who has played with Tim Berne and Mark Helias, raises expectations of some exciting work with electronics.


Linda Oh at Wangaratta in 2009

Linda Oh will also be leading a quartet with guitarist James Muller, Irabagon and Royston, as well as joining vocalist Gian Slater in a duo set they initiated at the 2011 festival.

Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett’s passion for Cuban music will be evident when she leads her all-female sextet Maqueque (the name translates as “spirit of a young girl”), which features the powerful vocals of Daymé Arocena. The other young Cuban musicians are percussionist Magdelys Savigne, drummer Yissy García, pianist Dánae Olano and bassist Célia Jiménez. Expect lots of happy energy and a hard-driving sound.

David Friesen

David Friesen                                                  Image supplied

I’m really looking forward to hearing US bassist, David Friesen, who will perform two solo concerts in Holy Trinity Cathedral and also join old friend Mike Nock for a duet outing in WPAC Theatre. Don’t miss these.

As always, Australian bands performing at Wangaratta can be relied on to deliver substantive, adventurous and challenging works that are almost guaranteed to be festival highlights and live on in our memories.

Kristin Berardi

Kristin Berardi with Sam Anning at Wangaratta in 2012

A couple of such concerts will this year have a connection to war. On Friday, October 30, vocalist Kristin Berardi will join pianist Sean Foran and saxophonist Rafael Karlen to present songs inspired by letters, now in the state archives, sent home from the front by Anzacs in World War I. The songs have been recorded on the album, Hope in My Pocket.

Lloyd Swanton

Lloyd Swanton

On the following evening an impressive 12-piece band will play 12 compositions by bassist and composer Lloyd Swanton for an extended suite, Ambon, inspired by his uncle Stuart’s experience as a Japanese POW on Ambon. Swanton (The Necks, The Catholics) says he wanted to “salvage whatever beauty I could from what is … a quite horrible story” and to draw more attention to the plight of these prisoners.

Joining Swanton will be Paul Cutlan (bass clarinet, saxophones, recorder), James Eccles (on his uncle’s viola), Sandy Evans (tenor and soprano saxophones), James Greening (trombone, cornet, pocket trumpet, tuba), Fabian Hevia (cajon, percussion), Sam Lemann (ukulele), Jon Pease (guitar), Ron Reeves (kendang, percussion), Michel Rose (pedal steel guitar), John Hibberd (trombone) and Hamish Stuart (drums).

Zac Hurren

Zac Hurren with Sam Anning

This year, sadly, Wangaratta will be the poorer for the absence of festival stalwart Allan Browne. He will be sorely missed. Another artist we have lost, saxophonist David Ades, will be remembered in a concert by his close friend and fellow saxophonist, Zac Hurren. The Queensland saxophonist will play original music Ades recorded in New York shortly before he died in November 2013 and which is to be released on his final album. Mark this gig as one not to miss.

Virna Sanzone and Niko Schauble

Virna Sanzone and Niko Schauble in The Italian Project

A triumph of Adrian Jackson’s years as artistic director of Stonnington Jazz will be revisited when pianist Paul Grabowsky joins vocalist Virna Sanzone and European expatriates Mirko Guerrini (saxophone) and Niko Schauble (drums) to perform The Italian Project — interpretations of traditional Italian and Sicilian folk songs, and more recent songs from Fellini and other modern Italian composers.

When they delighted the audience at Chapel Off Chapel in 2014, I loved “the disparity between the expressive vocals and the riveting work of the other musicians” and found “the imaginative work by Guerrini, Grabowsky and Schauble throughout this set a joy to behold” and “offset against Sanzone’s vocals it was a perfect fit”. This outing is bound to be a festival highlight for many.

In other WPAC Theatre attractions during the festival, oud master Joseph Tawadros will display his virtuosic skills on the fretless Arabic lute alongside his brother James Tawadros on percussion and pianist Matt McMahon, and crowd favourite James Morrison will play a set with his Superband, which features Mat Jodrell (trumpet), Carl Dewhurst (guitar), Phil Stack (bass) and David Jones (drums) as well as guest saxophonist from the US, Jeff Clayton.

Perth-based drummer/composer Daniel Susnjar will perform compositions from his debut album Su Su Nje, given four stars by reviewer John McBeath, which is inspired by Afro-Peruvian rhythms and fresh arrangements of classic Peruvian songs.

There will also be plenty to please in the WPAC Hall next door. Papua New Guinea-born pianist/composer Aaron Choulai, who moved to Japan in 2009, will lead a trio with Tom Lee on bass and Hugh Harvey on drums. Expect the unexpected.

Alister Spence

Alister Spence

Pianist/composer Alister Spence has recorded five albums with Lloyd Swanton on bass and Toby Hall on drums and glockenspiel. When they performed at the Malthouse during the 2014 Melbourne International Jazz Festival, the Ausjazz review described their outing as “music I felt could be touched or felt as a physical sensation” and “a riveting set by a focused, energetic and engrossing trio”. Expect plenty of propulsion from this trio at Wangaratta.

Veteran drummer Ted Vining formed Blow in 2000, calling on the experience of pianist Bob Sedergreen, his musical partner of over 40 years, to join Peter Harper (alto saxophone, flute), Ian Dixon (trumpet) and Gareth Hill (bass). With six albums under its belt, Blow will mix individual freedom with ensemble work.

Peter Petrucci

Peter Petrucci

If it’s a while since you heard Peter Petrucci on guitar, he will join Bob Sedergreen, Wilbur Wilde and Paul Williamson on saxophones and Mike Jordan on drums in veteran bassist Geoff Kluke’s The Changes. This should be a hoot.

Winner of the 2006 National Jazz Awards for piano Jackson Harrison will team with Ben Waples (bass) and James Waples (drums) in a trio with guest on trumpet Phil Slater. This will definitely be worth an early start at 10am Sunday.

And if you miss bassist Phil Stack on the Gardens Stage, he will join James Muller on guitar and Tim Firth on drums in WPAC Hall.

The other hall that draws big crowds at Wangaratta, especially during judging of the National Jazz Awards (for bass this year), is St Pat’s. Jane Bunnett and Maqueque will perform there on Saturday night.

Pianist Chris Cody — born in Melbourne, bred in Sydney and now living in Paris — will play standards and originals with Mike Avgenicos (tenor saxophone), Thomas Botting (bass) and James Waples (drums). Expect Arabic and African influences with a definite French accent.

Described by John Clare as “one of the leading drummers in the country”, Sydney’s Dave Goodman will perform originals written music specifically for members of his quartet, Peter Koopman (guitar), Matt McMahon (piano) and Cameron Undy (bass).

Also from Sydney, Hammerhead is a sextet in the mould of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and other Blue Note bands. The line-up is Jason Bruer (tenor saxophone), Andrew Robertson (alto saxophone), Phil Slater (replacing Ray Cassar on trumpet), Greg Coffin (piano), Matt Greubner (bass) and Duncan Archibald (drums). Expect classic hard bop.

Paul Van Ross

Paul Van Ross

Melbourne saxophonist Paul Van Ross (The Buck Stops Here, Get Sorted) travelled to Cuba in 2013 to record his fourth album, Mi Alma CubanaMy Cuban Soul. Joining Paul (saxophones, flute) will be Jonathan Cohen (piano), Elizabeth Obando (bass, vocals), Damien Ellis (drums), and Toby Bender (timbales).

Rob Burke

Robert Burke

And another Melbourne saxophonist, Monash University’s Robert Burke recorded his latest album, The Power Of The Idea (Jazzhead) in New York. Wangaratta patrons will hear a variation of that band with Paul Williamson on trumpet, Jordan Murray on trombone, Paul Grabowsky on piano, Marty Holoubek replacing Mark Helias on bass and Dave Beck taking over from Nasheet Waits on drums.

So, to answer that question arising from the additional Gardens Stage and other festival changes this year — “What does that leave rusted on jazz fans?” — I believe there is plenty of meat on the bone (or quinoa in the salad), especially in the WPAC Hall, St Pat’s Hall and at Holy Trinity Cathedral. If the queues seem too long in WPAC Theatre, it is a dead cert that there will be some solid jazz fare at these other venues.



  1. Look I don’t want to be a party pooper but unfortunately Wang has headed down a dangerous path. The real strength of the festival was that it was a serious artistic jazz festival. It did not bend to trends or anything to dilute its product in the name of commercialism. Largely this was due to Adrian Jackson as the artistic director. Having been at the brink of financial disaster a court Le of years ago it is clear that the community and local council who largely fund the festival have had their way. Hence the horrible inclusion of non jazz and more commercial jazz music. I have nothing against Joe Cammilleri and thirsty merc and yes I’m aware of their jazz connections, but this jazz cop is writing them a ticket. Ditto Ash Gunwald. Great music perhaps but that ain’t jazz!!! Knowing Adrian Jackson and his thoughts on this type of programming he has obviously been rolled. The very real danger for wang now is that it will, in time, as the encroachment continues simply become another music festival and its place as the ‘artistically serious’ jazz festival with integrity will be lost. To me it just seems such a real shame. I can’t think of another time in its history when something like this has occurred in the programme. Anyway I’m booking my accomodation early next year as I don’t want to miss out on Kenny G and Acker Bilk with Scott Tinkler as special guest. I’m interested to hear others thoughts.

  2. Completely agree with Jethro. With these non-jazz additions to the program, can Kylie Minogue and Justin Beiber be far from inclusion at Wang?

  3. Have to be a sub-editor and mention that it’s Bieber. I think that the organisers of the festival would be beside themselves if Kylie and Justin agreed to perform. I suppose if the non-jazz gigs can subsidise the jazz, including hard core stuff, I would not mind. Will reserve judgment until after the gardens stage is tested (maybe in rain?).

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