Melbourne International Jazz Festival, June 1 – 11, 2017
To say this festival ended on a high note is undeniable. It was also a long note — or collection of many notes.
Speedball — a quintet formed in Perth 17 years ago and whose members now mostly live in Melbourne — played possibly the longest set of the festival to a packed house at The Jazzlab, wowing the enthusiastic throng with pieces off their debut album, We Have Moved, for one hour 41 minutes. It seemed half that.
Afterwards, the crowd seemed to thicken in the relatively new — and much acclaimed —Brunswick venue run by festival artistic director Michael Tortoni as the festival’s allegedly hardest working bass player Sam Anning returned to the stage with Mark Fitzgibbon and Danny Fischer for the final late night jam session. I slipped away to digest the music I’d heard in 17 concerts over 10 days.
A couple of encounters have stayed in my mind. One was a conversation with a fellow from up north (Wollongong, I think he said) who’d taken time off work to come to Melbourne, stay at The Langham, and hear music. No hard core jazz fan, he’d been initially attracted by James Morrison’s gig with Patti Austin, then decided to stay on. At the end of the set by Swiss trio MaxMantis on Friday, June 9, he was smiling broadly.
The other was a fan moment. Awaiting doors open at The Jazzlab on Wednesday, I hardly noticed a car pull up and an older couple alight. Their younger colleague tried the door, unsuccessfully, and then I realised I was standing on the footpath on a cold Melbourne night with renowned Carla Bley and Steve Swallow. Cool. Not long after that they joined Monash Art Ensemble and saxophonist Andy Sheppard on stage in Appearing Nightly, a welcome opportunity to catch these visiting jazz luminaries at close quarters.
Small venues allow that kind of intimacy, but they do fill up. Among the festival gigs to sell out were, at The Jazzlab, Tal Cohen Quintet, Bill Frisell Trio, Tigran Hamasyan (twice) and The Necks (four times); and, at 170 Russell, Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles. The drawing power of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, as celebrated by Patti Austin, James Morrison and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, was evident in two sold-out concerts at much larger Hamer Hall. All of the concerts I attended at The Toff in Town were either packed or well attended, and there were reports of many bums on seats at other club sessions.
International artists were impressive, but Australian artists — including expatriates and those who have spent time abroad — were up there with the visitors in providing music that captivates, intrigues and delights. That’s hardly a surprise.
It’s always difficult to find a single thread running through such a diverse collection of concerts, and a list of my highlights is bound to be so governed by personal taste that it would not be all that helpful. It’s more useful, perhaps, to explore what is it that attracts us to the music — scripted and improvised — that is being delivered at festival concerts often so markedly different. Is it the virtuosic solos, the ebb and flow of a cohesive ensemble’s evolving offerings, the evident interplay, the long years of experience that make for mutual understanding in a trio or ensemble, the fiery and spectacular playing either individually or collectively, the tension and drama in a composition, the art of entertainment or the surprise of something new and totally different?
Two international trios playing at Melbourne Recital Centre delivered pretty much what was expected from world renowned players with long, illustrious pedigrees. Johnathan Blake’s drum solos in Kenny Barron’s trio excited many, but his amazingly long effort in Bud-Like often seemed to involve a cascade of rolling repetitions and I preferred his shorter offering in Calypso, where his work seemed more integral to the piece, referencing the melody throughout. This well oiled and assured trio tapped into deep jazz roots with ease. I’d hoped for more fire from Barron’s keys, but loved the way he infused swing so unobtrusively, awakening interest in the listener.
Carla Bley is respected for her compositions and arrangements rather than her solos and referred to her charts often during her trio’s outing with Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard. Humour shone through the trio’s “brand new” piece, Beautiful Telephones — dedicated to Donald Trump because apparently that’s what he first noticed when entering the White House — with its references to iconic American tunes, but I loved the way Bley and Swallow almost, but not quite, filled the spaces as they interacted. The highlight was their three-part piece Andando el Tiempo, written about addiction and recovery, which seemed too gentle for its theme yet so beautiful that the audience felt applause would be intrusive. Sheppard’s soprano sax seemed effortlessly fluid.
Applause was similarly denied Brisbane vocalist Kristin Berardi at times in her BFK trio’s exploration of freshly recorded material with Luxembourg vibraphonist Pascal Schumacher at The Toff, ironically marred by hand dryer noise during their rendition of Begin Again (perhaps they should have). Schumacher, who had joined BFK a few days earlier in time for their recording session, came on stage after the trio’s opener Revolving Doors, which Berardi explained was named after she called for suggestions from the audience at Ric’s Bar in Brisbane. Other suggestions were “Aliens” and “The Slime Attack”.
I await with interest the freshly minted quartet’s album, but on the night the trio of Berardi’s compelling vocals — she has the ability to delight with or without words — along with Sean Foran’s piano and Rafael Karlen’s sax provided the most force, especially in Will I Ever Rest?, No Shepherds Live Here and Karlen’s Bushfire Break.
Words were integral to two performances, both at The Jazzlab. I have reviewed Andrea Keller’s Still Night: Music in Poetry previously, but on the festival’s final night I was even more impressed by this exploration of our feelings about death using sung poetry. Vince Jones’s voice grew stronger during the set, alternating and harmonising in perfect synergy with Gian Slater’s exquisite vocals, especially for If Death is Kind and the closing I am a little church (no great cathedral). Julien Wilson (reeds) and Stephen Magnusson (guitar) add so much to this work, which will be recorded when funds permit.
Pianist Hue Blanes utilised the words of speeches in his PBS Young Elder of Jazz Commission entitled Things That Have Been Said. Blanes assembled a formidable quartet for this imaginative work and the challenge was to integrate recorded fragments of speech with his music. At times I struggled to pick up the words amid the superbly executed musical contributions, and found it difficult to digest both simultaneously. Yet there was more than mere humour in the insertion of Donald Trump’s “we will determine the future of the world for many, many people” and the space given to Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I have a dream” lines was ideal. The closing Eulogy featuring musicians speaking was most effective, but overall I wonder whether the spoken words could also be delivered visually to enhance the impact of this adventurous work.
Adventurous also was Kira Kira, the presentation of four compositions commissioned under the MIJF’s International Exchange program and featuring Australians Alister Spence (fender rhodes and effects) and Tony Buck (drums and percussion) with Japanese artists Satoko Fujii (piano) and Natsuki Tamura (trumpet). This song cycle created as a result of an ongoing relationship between Spence and Fujii was an absolute triumph and for me the highlight of this festival. From the moment these four began their first texturally spectacular piece I was riveted — so much so that I find it hard to explain its appeal. Yet these pieces held me entranced as they changed, developed, and evolved, creating tension and holding attention in sequences that never lacked the ability to engross. I tore myself away to make another concert as Tamura’s horn rose in resplendent glory, as I left pondering the fact that the appeal of these pieces was not in swing or in melody or in virtuosic solos, but in incredibly successful collectivism and mutual awareness of the creative process.
It was a similar yet vastly different collectivism that made the Jim Black Quartet work so well at The Toff. Black’s ability at the drum kit, along with his energy and enthusiasm, would be enough to guarantee satisfaction, but the synergy — there’s that word again — between him and Julien Wilson on reeds, Chris Hale on electric bass and Stephen Magnusson on guitar made this so much more. Throughout the set there were times when individuals took prominence, but this outing was far removed from some in which solo follows solo. Instead, it seemed as if what emerged was being developed on the run by those involved. This was music going somewhere, but the destination was most likely not predetermined.
Energy generated from the drum kit was also a feature of Ari Hoenig’s trio from the US with Nitai Hershkovits on piano and Or Bareket on bass. Hoenig is a frequent visitor to Australia and much-loved because of his ability at the kit and wildly enthusiastic approach, which includes his party trick of tuning the drums so that he can play melodies. There was plenty of drama, power and finesse in Hershkovits’ expressive playing and I loved the way this trio varied dynamics and tempo, all three attentive to each other’s changes throughout.
Attentiveness is written all over the face of Bill Frisell, even when the lighting (from behind his head) at The Jazzlab puts his hint of a smile in deep shadow (Note to self: resist indulgent comments related purely to photography). What a treat to see and hear Frisell up close along with Thomas Morgan on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. You don’t want to be anywhere else when you’re immersed in this trio’s extended-play pieces that pulsate and undulate as they explore and rework simple melodies.
It no doubt helped that I’d watched Emma Franz’s documentary on Frisell a few hours earlier, but my feeling was that this music was akin to a living being going through accelerated evolution yet without any hurry, constantly adapting and developing in a seamless manner, the parts forming a unity and yet shaping further change. As with the Jim Black Quartet, it’s the journey rather than the destination that seems to matter for Frisell as momentum ebbs and flows. Moon River was a treat, as were later excursions into toe-tapping country and a Bond tune.
If Frisell is a giant in the jazz scene, Gentle Giants was the album launched at The Jazzlab on my opening festival gig by expatriate Australian pianist Tal Cohen in the first of two starkly contrasting concert double-ups. Jamie Oehlers on tenor sax delivered some vigorous solos, Greg Osby (US) was fairly restrained, but Cohen was the giant on the night, playing with swing, great power and fragility. Lo Haya was the highlight composition.
Much more amped-up and pumped was, at The Toff, The Donny McCaslin Group, given prominence through the band’s work with David Bowie on his final album Blackstar. McCaslin has much stage presence and is a great entertainer, as well as not being shy of expressing his political leanings (sound IMHO). Jason Lindner was attentive and creative on keys and Zach Danziger energetic at the drum kit for this high-octane performance, but the star was the talented and engaging McCaslin. I was most drawn to the more surreal Bowie compositions this group played, but it was obvious that there is a strong demand among younger fans for this style of music. As someone commented later, the audience went wild when the saxophone played a high note. It was an example of virtuosic solo appeal — but maybe some of these patrons could get out more.
The other disparate double bill began with Poland’s NAK Trio, described as “a charismatically unconventional outfit” of four instruments (bass, drums and the left and right hands of pianist Dominik Wania). They opened with Wooing to Woo, but I thought there was little effort to woo the audience. Wania delivered plenty of momentum from the piano and keyboard, adding force and flourish via his obviously skilled, robust and expansive approach, but there was insufficient variation or space to add interest. Melbourne’s Marty Holoubek did a mighty job sitting in for the trio’s usual bassist Michal Kapczuk, but drummer Jacek Kochan seemed overly busy and intent on filling every gap.
By contrast, Swiss trio MaxMantis — Lukas Gernet piano, Rafael Jerjen bass, Samuel Buttiker drums — showed they were entertainers from the outset, injecting warmth and fun into a set that displayed their infectious enthusiasm as well as musical ability. Apparently this was a relatively tame performance from this band (or clan, as they like to put it), which delivered much variation and space, as well as a zany take on some Swiss folk tunes. Their encore Theme Song for a Power Hen sums up the mood, which was upbeat, offbeat and quirky.
As MaxMantis exemplified quirky, the festival’s only solo performer, Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan, epitomised the indefinable. Armed with grand piano, a synthesiser and his falsetto vocals, he incorporated electronic effects with classical piano variations and mouth percussion in spasmodic bursts and sudden pulses of sound, forming patterns and discarding them in fragmented forms filled at times with drama, agitation and unrest while at others dipping into gentler, lyrical interludes. Intensity was built and fell away, dynamics varied mightily and emphatic harshness gave way to gentle repose, albeit briefly. His final piece, Nairian Odyssey, was appealingly abstract and ended with intense mouth percussion that enthralled the packed audience at The Jazzlab. I left feeling ambivalent, finding that his set was more a series of effects than a journey, that unlike the collective development in Kira Kira, Hamasyan’s pieces did not seem to be going anywhere.
It’s a big leap from solo keys to Appearing Nightly, in which the Carla Bley Trio members joined Monash Art Ensemble at The Jazzlab to deliver sprightly versions of Bley’s tunes from the 2008 live album of that name — swing-era standards with oomph. There is something about the sound of a big band turning up the volume that warms the heart and feeds the soul. Bley obviously enjoyed playing pieces she’d not encountered for years and the Monash musicians delivered great solos and tight coordination with verve and gusto. They threatened to lift the roof at times.
Which brings me back to Speedball — not a big band, but so loud at times that in the front row I was tempted to break out the improvised ear plugs. Amid all the swing and spirited power of this quintet, which entertained us for such a long set that nevertheless seemed to flash past, it was drummer Daniel Susnjar’s composition Gospel that stole the show, featuring bowed bass from Sam Anning and an opening piano solo from Grant Windsor in which you could have heard a pin drop, the audience being so rapt.
It was an ideal finish.