‘Wang hang’ missed, but not masked

Kika Sprangers Large Ensemble


Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues,
Monday 26 October to Sunday 1 November, 2020

The expression “recorded live” has always seemed a little contradictory to me, although I get the fact that the music’s not created in a studio, because being there is so different from hearing music remotely, via a recording.

Recordings are obviously well worth having, whether on CD or vinyl or streamed (via Bandcamp of course). But this global pandemic has brought into sharp focus the significant gap between watching musicians at work in the flesh and in the same room, and watching them on a screen.

In past months I have enjoyed lunchtime concerts on Thursdays presented by Monash University’s Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music. These gigs become available via Facebook at 1pm, which adds a real-time quality. Shown in full-screen mode, these concerts can feel as if musicians are performing in your home. You can look forward to them and regret it when you forget to tune in on time for the start.

Yet the real-time nature of these concerts is illusory – they can be viewed later via the school’s Facebook page. I also have loved Paul Grabowsky’s Friday ruminations on the piano from his home during the lockdown, also via Facebook, yet these can be enjoyed long after he has released them online.

Restrictions imposed to maximise safety during the pandemic have engendered a variety of online musical offerings and it would make little sense to limit access to one-off, watch-now-or-never “outings”. But that flexibility, and practical aspects of viewing from home, can result in a stop-start experience with potential distractions to challenge our attention. At a live concert which we have travelled to attend – a real outing – we don’t receive a phone call or an invitation to help with meal preparation in mid performance.

So, whatever the quality of our home speakers or smart TV monitors, online gigs are never going to match the real thing. Many of us may decide to work from home more often once Covid restrictions ease, but we will want to leave home to experience live music as soon as it is safe to do so.

Covid-19 prevented the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues from commemorating its 30th year over its usual weekend before Cup Day in the regional city and in the great venues so many fans have loved to visit over the years. Instead, the festival board and three artistic directors – Eugene Ball, Zoe Hauptmann and Scott Solimo – put together an online program over seven days, ably and irrepressibly introduced by Frank Davidson. Surely planning this festival must have been one of the most difficult tasks imaginable given that coronavirus restrictions were changing so frequently.

It would be unfair to expect the online program to measure up to the usual music-saturated weekend away and the associated “Wang hang”, but it was vital to show that this important festival still has an ongoing presence on the annual calendar of live jazz and blues.

An important drawcard and thread over five nights came as 10 vocalist contenders in this year’s National Jazz Awards performed from their Covid-safe studio locations in each state – a surely much more difficult task than singing before a live audience. Congratulations to all who performed, but especially first-placed Lauren Henderson from South Australia, Josh Kyle from Victoria (second) and Jessica Spina from Queensland, who took the honours when the judges Kristin Berardi, Michelle Nicole and Sam Keevers announced the results on Saturday. A difficult enough decision to make with all contenders in Wangaratta each year, this must have been exceptionally tough for judges and performers.

Over three nights, courtesy of the Melbourne Jazz Co-operative, we were able to enjoy all-too-brief excerpts from previously unreleased footage of a 2016 concert commemorating the great drummer/composer Allan Browne. I especially appreciated the Barney McAll Unit’s moving and finessed rendition of Sorrow Horse on Monday evening and on Thursday night the beauty and serenity of Keller/Murphy/Ball’s performance of Lullaby, with its space, shimmering horn and complementarity. Hearing Tim Stevens (piano) and Nick Haywood (bass) from this concert was also a treat. But these musical morsels left us wanting more.

Just as the NJA finalists’ performances were created specifically for this digital festival, so were three commissioned works of improvisation aired on Wednesday night, featuring Maria Moles on drums, Scott Tinkler on trumpet and, as Wolfa, Jenny Barnes on vocal effects and Mick Meagher on electric bass. Moles delivered a slow build and then fluidity at speed that recalled a performance by expatriate drummer Joe Talia, now in Japan. Barnes and Meagher, who I had last heard at the MJC’s 35th anniversary concert in January 2018, explored the timbre and expressive power of their respective instruments – voice and electric bass – in a challenging set. Tinkler’s trumpet, clear and unembellished, skipped danced and flew in ways that frequently delighted. It was a celebration of “trumpah” and simply wonderful.

On Friday the digital festival celebrated its connection with the Amersfoort Jazz Festival in the Netherlands, forged by multi-instrumentalist Adam Simmons when he was co-artistic director for Wangaratta. In appropriately named sextet Arcing Wires, led by 2018 NJA winner and drummer/composer Alex Hirlian, young musicians played five pieces written by band members and billed as a fusion of “math rock, progressive metal and jazz”. My favourite of the set was the lively Sensory Overload by Felix Lalanne (guitar) and Nish Manjunath (tenor sax), while Seratonin was a little too laid back. The use of imaginative background screens suited the electronic feel of this music and the set was a substantive contribution with some excellent solo work.

Simmons displayed his characteristic enthusiasm and energy in what could be described as a coaching session for the building of relationships and linkages in the world of jazz, a verbal essay punctuated with powerful and expressive bursts of saxophone. The commitment of this supremely creative musician is evident and, it is to be hoped, infectious, yet I was left wanting to hear more from his instrument in this outing. I was glad to learn that he was wearing his characteristic red socks.

The second concert of the evening on Friday continued the Amersfoort connection and delivered a performance that could easily have transported us to the Wangaratta Performing Arts Centre theatre on the first evening of a weekend gathering. Saxophonist Kika Sprangers led her 11-piece “large ensemble” in five finely crafted and constantly evolving pieces that amply showcased band members, including vocalists and a French horn player. The compositions allowed for many well executed reed solos from Sprangers, yet the changes from atmospheric and eerie to fragmentary, tactile and percussive, then periods of bustling tension and minor chaos were very much the ensemble’s collective work. This was the sort of concert we surely hope can be featured at Wangaratta in future years with the artists appearing in person.

From much closer to home, Saturday evening included two live-streamed concerts from Adelaide’s Wheatsheaf Hotel, co-presented with Creative Original Music Adelaide – each gig replete with a live audience to add that touch of realism and make Melburnians envious. A technical hitch with the sound early in the first outing only served to enhance the feeling of immediacy. The Wheatsheaf crowd loved the easy fluidity and vitality of songwriter Jo Lawry’s vocals, laced with scat and vocalese. Known for her work with Sting, Lawry joined partner Will Vinson (NYC) on saxophone and keys in her quartet at 5.30pm, delivering a warm and engaging set with Angus Mason on drums and Bonnie Aue on acoustic bass.

At 8.30pm we were back at the Wheatsheaf for some straight ahead jazz from The New Cabal quartet, led by bassist Lyndon Gray, who had not shared the stage together since the middle of 2019. They played long-form original pieces by band members, allowing plenty of room for a sequential, extended solos in which the mutual understanding wrought through 10 years of playing in about 500 gigs was evident. However, this set was not compelling enough to prevent my being at times briefly enticed away by home distractions, which would not have occurred had I been among the live audience.

Zela Margossian Quintet

The final concert of the digital Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues on Sunday night was a superb outing and a fitting finale. A co-presentation with this year’s Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival and the Sydney Improvised Music Association, the Zela Margossian Quintet’s performance was recorded in that city then shared with the online Wangaratta audience. Pianist/composer Margossian’s Armenian heritage and classical training showed through in nine compositions, including an encore. Adem Yilmaz shone on percussion, complementing Jacques Emery’s work on bass and Alexander Inman-Hislop’s finesse at the drum kit. Margossian delivered free-flowing, dynamically varied and expressive piano notes, while Stuart Vandegraaff’s often sinuous contributions on soprano sax and clarinet were also luminous. The quintet displayed cohesion throughout in an engrossing set.

In this concert, as in the Kika Sprangers outing, we were transported into a place that may have been, just for a while, part of the usual Wang hang.

Roll on 2021.


PS: This review did not set out to cover blues performances.

PPS: Stills in Motion – A Retrospective was not reviewed.

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