Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues,
Monday 26 October to Sunday 1 November, 2020
When venerated Melbourne drummer and composer Allan Browne died on 13 June 2015, I was deeply saddened, but feeling the loss from a distance while visiting family in Canada.
When jazz musicians gathered to celebrate Browne’s musical life and legacy in a memorial concert on Friday 23 September the following year at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre, I was again absent in Canada – international travel was possible then. So I missed this opportunity to hear musicians who had played with him over the years paying tribute in this event presented by the Melbourne Jazz Co-operative.
So I am looking forward to seeing and hearing the previously unreleased footage from the concert, provided by MJC and aired during the extended seven-day Wangaratta festival, presented digitally in its 30th year due to the Covid-19 restrictions.
Of course it won’t be the same as being there in person, but the opportunity to experience excerpts from the memorial concert is welcomed indeed, beginning on Monday 26 October with a quartet featuring Barney McAll, Julien Wilson, Sam Anning and Dom Stitt.
On Tuesday we can tune in to hear a traditional jazz double header with the Margie Lou Dyer Quintet followed by Al’s Emotional Baggage Handlers. Thursday will bring Tim Stevens and Nick Haywood as well as Keller/Murphy/Ball. What a treat to hear all these musicians in such a moving tribute to Al Browne.
Vocalists have always been a hit at Wangaratta over the 29 years in which fans have gathered at that wonderful fulcrum of national and international jazz in regional Victoria. The annual National Jazz Awards this year feature vocalists and during the extended festival we have a chance to hear all 10 finalists – an opportunity not often taken up when there are competing concerts available.
The finalists are Harriett Allcroft (Vic), Briana Cowlishaw (NSW), Olivia Chindamo (Vic), Amelia Evans (Vic), Lucy Iffla (WA), Lauren Henderson (SA), Josh Kyle (Vic), Owen Measday (WA), Rita Satch (Vic) and Jessica Spina (Qld). In two screenings each night, recordings of the finalists’ work made in their states under Covid-19 restrictions will be aired nightly from Monday 26 October to Friday 30 October, judged by Michelle Nicole, Kristin Berardi and Sam Keevers. Winners and runners up will be announced on Saturday 31 October. Prizes are $7000 and a recording session with Pughouse Studios for the winner, $4000 for the second place and $2000 for third.
Voice will also feature on Wednesday 28 October in a commissioned concert, I Heart Improvisation, of works by Maria Moles on drums, Scott Tinkler on trumpet and, in a co-presentation with the MJC, duo WOLFA, with Jenny Barnes (vocals) and Mick Meagher (electric bass). Expect the unexpected here, and if that’s a cliché (which it is) then bear in mind that afterwards you’ll undoubtedly say, along with a certain PM, “How good is that?”.
Providing the international contribution to this digital festival will be a 90-minute performance entitled The Amersfoot Connection featuring 2018 NJA winner Alex Hirlian’s new work for sextet Arcing Wires (math rock, progressive metal and jazz), Adam Simmons talking and playing in Broodje Hadi and Dutch saxophonist Kika in the Kika Sprangers Large Ensemble. Don’t ask me what math rock entails – we’ll find out.
The national aspect of the festival requires no flights or long drives for musicians or fans. Partnerships with COMA (Creative Original Music Adelaide), SIMA (Sydney Improvised Music Association), the MJC and Australian Jazz Museum in Melbourne have brought us the Jo Lawry Quartet and The New Cabal quartet from SA, Zela Margossian’s quintet from NSW and recently digitised footage from the 1986 Jazz Convention for traditional jazz fans.
Given the challenges 2020 has thrown the arts and entertainment industry, the festival has made provision for viewers to donate to artists while viewing their concerts, with 100 per cent of the donations going directly to that artist.
Musicians from Wangaratta featured include vocalists Emma Christie and Paris Zachariou, swing and band tunes from former festival chair Mark Bolsius and Soli’s Blues Group.
Presentation of this festival against the odds must be applauded given the uncertainty resulting from the coronavirus roller-coaster ride this year. It must have been the worst possible situation in which to plan a festival. Co-artistic director Eugene Ball has admitted that, “in recent months, the format and program have been reimagined and rebuilt many times”.
“However, despite the hurdles that COVID-19 has presented, we have arrived at a program that celebrates the festival’s unique identity and its contribution to the Australian jazz and blues community over the last 30 years,” Ball has said.
And Co-artistic director Zoe Hauptmann adds that, “while this year’s festival differs wildly from the event we envisaged late last year, we are proud to have brought together such a rich and diverse program. We hope that there is something in it for every listener; lovers of contemporary jazz, blues, and traditional jazz.”
We may as well be honest and acknowledge that we’d all love to be up in Wangaratta for the usual Cup weekend feast of music, rubbing shoulders with musicians and other fans, soaking up the atmosphere of an esteemed and august festival in its 30th year.
But we can enjoy a week of digital offerings instead and hope that in 2021 we can return to the place we love for this great celebration of jazz and blues.
PS: For a look back through some images of past festivals from the past 10-plus years, check out Stills in Motion – A Retrospective on Thursday 29 October.