Wangaratta Festival of Jazz, November 2-4, 2018
Music speaks for itself. That’s what visiting saxophonist from Holland, Yuri Honing – a man of few words – told the audience in Wangaratta’s Performing Arts Centre Theatre on Saturday night during his quartet’s second festival outing.
He’s right, of course. The music delivered at Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues this year conveyed some powerful messages and crossed cultural boundaries without needing the embroidery of words.
Honing, with his acoustic quartet Wolfert Brederode (Holland) on piano, Gulli Gudmundsson (Iceland) on bass and Joost Lijbaart (Holland) on drums, spoke eloquently with his tenor saxophone in two concerts featuring compositions from their 2017 album Goldbrun. These guys knew each other and the pieces well, the horn soaring and gently musing over the responsive rhythm section in long explorations that varied in energy and intensity, but often seemed darkly brooding. Honing’s concerns for Europe and love of works by Wagner and Richard Strauss were inspirations, but spelled out only in the music.
Yet words and music are often inextricably linked. That relationship can be fraught – how can what we experience in a live concert possibly be described adequately in a string of superlatives? Yet the strength in soul singer Tina Harrod’s exceptionally clearly articulated songs from her album City of Longing, performed on Sunday in WPAC Theatre, came certainly from her strong vocals, but also in the hard-hitting lyrics.
Festival artistic team member Adam Simmons introduced his deeply personal work The Calling, part of his The Usefulness of Art series of concerts, with words, yet it was the performance by his Creative Music Ensemble with Afrolankan Drumming System and Vikram Iyengar, helped by screened visuals, that conveyed the colour, noise, mayhem and moving moments of his journey so effectively.
I have reviewed The Calling previously from a performance at fortyfive downstairs, but for Wangaratta festival patrons this must have surely been a lively, energetic and virtuosic musical journey full of colours, flavours and fun, yet also most moving.
In St Pat’s Hall on Sunday, multi-instrumentalist Adrian Sheriff and drum maestro Ted Vining took the audience on a fascinating journey that came with stories, but conveyed much via the simple musical exchanges between two accomplished players. I wish I’d been there for all of this.
In a festival that did not suffer at all from its forays into other traditions and cultures than the American jazz pantheon, there seemed to be – and these words are probably not ideal – concerts for the brain and concerts for the heart. In other words, some concerts took us on conceptual journeys and others just swept us up and carried us along with their vigour, energy or beauty.
On Friday night in WPAC Theatre the Australian Art Orchestra presented Sometimes Home Can Grow Stranger Than Space, in which three composers – AAO director Peter Knight, Tilman Robinson and Andrea Keller – explored the lives of people damaged by war.
In Knight’s Sharp Folds, which offered glimpses of lingering parental grief, the individual words – voiced by Georgie Darvidis – were not all that easy to pick up amid the engrossing and intense accompanying music. Keller’s Bent Heart, which draws on the stories of three women, conveyed their angst so effectively that no words were needed, although the epilogue’s prayer “Cry heart but never break” stays with me. Robinson’s I Was Only A Child brilliantly drew on the rhythm and cadence of a recorded interview between a young student and a war veteran to show how awareness of war turns to nostalgia, its lessons unlearned. In content reminiscent of Lloyd Swanton’s monumental work Ambon, performed at Wangaratta in 2015, this AAO outing used music compositions and words most effectively, their messages lingering.
On Saturday evening in WPAC Theatre Sirens Big Band performed [A]part, trumpeter Ellen Kirkwood’s suite responding to world issues such as climate change, the refugee crisis and the omnipresence of the internet. As with Keller’s Bent Heart, this monumental work – comprising sweeping vistas, swelling and receding soundscapes and powerful solos from Sandy Evans on saxophone and Keller on piano – needed no words to convey drama, tension and agitation, as well as loss and suffering. Gian Slater’s vocal contributions were minimal but integral to this work, which was riveting from start to finish.
The quintet that expatriate Australian Alex Stuart brought from his home city Paris treated us to compositions from their album Aftermath, which explored the darkness in the world while celebrating its beauty and defiant joie de vivre. This versatile band – Stuart on guitar, Irving Acao on tenor saxophone and keyboards, Arno de Casanove on trumpet, keys and vocals, Antoine Banville on drums and Ouriel Ellert on electric bass – delivered sophisticated, varied and polished pieces in two outings. Stuart was unselfish in leading this collegiate ensemble, which displayed plenty of verve and drive along with intricacy and finesse in thoughtful compositions.
Another standout Australian artist with recent overseas experience was trumpeter Niran Dasika, who demonstrated confidence and soloing depth forged in Japan through playing a lot of gigs there. Clashing concerts prevented me hearing the whole of all but one of Dasika’s many festival outings, but on Sunday morning he joined Japan’s Sumire Kuribayashi on piano to play her Pieces of Colour compositions with Shun Ishiwaka (Japan) on drums, James Macaulay on trombone and Sam Anning on bass, with Adam Simmons on tenor saxophone for some pieces. This music was exquisitely beautiful, at times playful and also powerful, further proof that collaborations between Australian and Japanese artists bring great results.
I missed hearing the product of one such collaboration – James Macaulay on trombone leading the Hishakaku Quartet – in order not to miss superstars Andrea Keller on piano and Sandy Evans on reeds in an unprecedented duo at Holy Trinity Cathedral. Gender ought not to be an issue in music, yet this set of mostly ballads demonstrated the power, profundity and beauty of compositions and musicianship by two amazing women. Lilac Embers, dedicated to Richard Gill, was a delight.
Evans was among the host of jazz luminaries to perform in WPAC Theatre on Sunday in the dectet Ten Part Invention, introduced by the ensemble’s founder, John Pochee. In a spirited set that included Roger Frampton’s And Zen Monk, Paul Cutlan’s Nock on Effect, Evans’ Fortea Two and Miroslav Bukovsky’s no holds barred Plain Talk, this band showed why it remains at the peak of large ensemble achievements in Australia. My highlight was reedsman Andrew Robson’s Poets Must Keep an Eye on the Moon.
Germany’s Trio ELF was an instant hit with audiences at their Saturday evening concert in WPAC Theatre and on Sunday in the newly styled St Pat’s Hall with tables and a bar. Walter Lang on piano, Peter Cudek on acoustic bass and Gerwin Eisenhauer on drums added a little electronic wizardry and lots of humour to their melodically and rhythmically appealing compositions. Their approach made excellent use of sudden dramatic dynamic variations, beginning each piece with a simple tune repeated, adding effects, pumping up the volume and intensity via bass and expansive work from Eisenhauer, before returning to the fluid simplicity of the piano notes. Their cover of punk band Blink 182’s Down was a favourite.
Recently formed Quattro Club’s Saturday morning outing sported such an array of whistles and bells that I tried closing my eyes to concentrate on the feast of exploratory textures and timbres. Joel Hands-Otte played Bb Clarinet, bass clarinet, bamboo flute and a plastic pipe. Dan Gordon played tuba and bass flugelhorn. Mirko Guerrini played curved soprano sax, tenor sax, baritone sax, xaphoon, Pakistani flute and melodica. Niko Schauble was at the drum kit. It really was akin to kids building a series of projects with Lego blocks, yet without haste and with plenty of assurance. It possibly did not always hang together, but I loved the adventurous, unscripted approach.
Two long-form suite performances that I had heard previously and liked a lot, but did not get to at this festival – trumpeter Reuben Lewis’s I Hold the Lion’s Paw on Sunday and Cheryl Durongpisitkul’s Follow Me Through the Red Ash on Saturday – drew praise from many who attended.
One of the standout cultural collaborations at Wangaratta was The Three Seas, bringing modern jazz together with West Bengali folk music. Matt Keegan on saxophone joined Steve Elphick on bass, Raju Das Baul on vocals and khamak, Deo Ashis Mothey on vocals, guitar and dotora, and Gaurab Chatterjee on dubki, drums in two warmly engaging and virtuosic displays of musicianship on Friday and Sunday evenings. The interaction of Keegan with amazing vocalist Das Baul exemplified the close bonds formed among all these musicians, demonstrating again how well music succeeds in crossing boundaries.
I caught only part of another successful collaboration on Sunday afternoon when Julian Banks on saxophone joined Indonesian master percussionist Cepi Kusmiadi on the kendang sunda, a set of two-headed drums, along with James Hauptmann on drums and Chris Hale on bass. And I copped some justified criticism later that evening for not letting on in time that the Garden Quartet – featuring Iranian musician Gelareh Pour on kamancheh and voice, Mike Gallichio on electric guitar, Arman Habibi on santur and voice, and Brian O’Dwyer on drums – should not be missed.
Expectations can be dangerous. A restrained acoustic set in WPAC Theatre by guitarist Ben Hauptmann’s “ideal” septet of accomplished musicians was not what I had anticipated. It was a great line-up – Arne Hanna and Franco Raggatt on guitar, Harry Sutherland on piano, festival co-programmer Zoe Hauptmann on bass, James Hauptmann on drums and Evan Mannell on percussion – and there was no denying their musicianship, but selections played seemed more akin to French folk than jazz, and the pieces did not vary greatly.
I had no idea what to expect from the only US band, FORQ, which comprises Henry Hey on keyboards, Chris McQueen on guitar, Jason “JT” Thomas on drums and Kevin Scott on electric bass. In their final outing of two at the festival on Sunday night in WPAC Theatre they delivered an energetic rock-infused set, but nothing to rival the work of popular Snarky Puppy, of which McQueen is a member.
The fully pumped Orszaczky Budget Orchestra, fronted by Tina Harrod and Darren Percival on vocals, closed out the festival in St Pat’s Hall with a set so loud that I sought relief for my ears towards the back. I liked the setting of “Club St Pat’s” but missed the final night jam where musicians and fans mingled and celebrated music performed and music enjoyed.
To sum up in words what often speaks for itself, the eclectic mix of improvised music at 2018’s festival again delivered plenty to satisfy fans, again on a limited budget and this time without big internationally renowned names or a lot from the American songbook. Culturally diverse offerings worked well, as did the significant European contributions.
Some new, festival-initiated collaborations between visiting and Australian artists would have been icing on the cake.
Words were important in some instances, and the forceful messages of “concept-based” concerts by the AAO and Sirens will play on in my mind for some time.
More images of the festival will be posted when time permits.
This is a comprehensive, balanced, informative and fair review. Well done!