Online, but definitely not on the nose

Matt Thomson from New South Wales during his National Jazz Award-winning performance streamed online.

National Jazz Awards, 26-28 November 2021
Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues

Right now online is probably on the nose for many concert-goers keen to return to live music in the flesh. That said, like any virulent viral variant, streamed performances are not going away for a long while yet.

There were significant benefits to delivering the work of the 10 finalists at the piano competing for the top three positions this year over three days via a viewing portal provided by Secure Show Tix.

First, we had the opportunity to hear all 10 finalists rather than just the final three contenders who traditionally, over the years before the pandemic, would have performed at 5pm on Sundays in the Wangaratta Performing Arts Centre theatre. Some devotees will have attended the heats held earlier in the festival program, but for many of us at Wangaratta the desire not to miss other artists was often too strong. We chose instead to attempt guessing the ranking order the judges would deliver for the three prize winners. Well, given that was hard enough, it is much more difficult when picking from 10.

Second, in the two sessions of competition ably introduced by Frank Davidson from Niko Schauble’s Pughouse Studios, we were able to begin watching at any stage after the official start time and also jump back at will to hear a particular competitor again – perhaps to check our initial reaction and refine our selections if needed. Such flexibility is a big bonus, although it does not of course obviate advantages of being in the room in the moment.

During lockdown I believe we have had the opportunity to appreciate how well it can work when concerts are streamed, for example from venues such as The Count’s and Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music and Performance at Monash. With quality sound recording and video these performances can bring live music into our homes. The camera vantage points provided during this year’s NJA recording sessions enabled us to watch these pianists close up in a way not often possible at live gigs, although occasionally a camera crept into view.

Before discussing other significant benefits of the online NJA, it’s worth mentioning the high quality of the backing musicians at each of the recording studios that hosted the finalists. The work of bassists Tamara Murphy, Hannah James, Bonnie Aue, Kate Pass and expat Matt Clohesy (Boston, NY) was exemplary. At the drum kit we heard accomplished contributions from Hugh Harvey, Hamish Stuart, Mark Whitford Jnr (NY), Angus Mason and Ben Vanderwal. And on trumpet it was a treat to hear Audrey Powne, Ellen Kirkwood, expat Nadje Noordhuis (NY), Luke White and Matt Smith.

Third, a new and especially welcome feature of this year’s online NJA outing was the readiness of the adjudicators to share some thoughts about how they approached their considerable task as well as to give feedback to the winning trio about their respective performances.

This was illuminating and a little surprising. By way of example, Steve Grant summed up his introductory comments with the words, “It was a very enjoyable experience.” I thought hard work may have best summed it up, but it seems not. The judges clearly loved the chance to confer and deliberate on what each artist had to offer.

In response to a query from Eugene Ball, Grant said that he was listening to each piece as a whole, how the conception of the whole piece worked, technical aspects such as the touch and skills of each pianist and the sense of swing. He said the technical quality of recordings submitted in the early round of selection varied widely, so the judges had to get right to the heart of the music and that “did come through”.

Andrea Keller reminded us that “this music is such an individualistic art form, from the players’ and the listeners’ perspective”.

“When we are listening, we are all bringing different experiences and expectations to the table,” Keller said. “One challenge was trying to step back to gauge the full performance and all the strengths, whether it’s innovative, the technical facility, and each of these performers have different strengths and different priorities in the music that they make.”

Keller said everything was equally worthy, so it certainly was a challenge deciding on the prize winners from such an inspiring lot of pianists. She welcomed the opportunity to spend time with Steve and the third judge, Matt McMahon, discussing “our own priorities and our own perceptions of jazz and improvised music”.

McMahon, who won the 1999 NJA, recalled that during the finals fellow pianist “Sam Keevers told me he was leaving Vince Jones and did I want to take over … that was what happened, I took over his role.”

Winning the award, McMahon said, gave him extra publicity, more confidence to pursue what he was doing and a kick along, “but you have to keep playing and practising and writing music”.

Eugene Ball, a runner-up in 2003 on trumpet, made the interesting observation that the NJA “bring attention to not only you as a winner, but all of us who strive to make this music, and it’s so difficult to get the powers that be to really pay attention to what we’re all struggling with here”. He has a point.

Now the drum roll before revealing what you undoubtedly all know by now – the winners.

But for the first time in my recollection (which admittedly is limited) we were treated also to some of the judges’ thoughts on each of top three. Steve Grant said of the performance by third-placed Steve Barry (2013 runner-up) that it was “fully formed, beautifully played, relaxed and easygoing, full of life, melody and humour” and that “we liked the ballad [Irving Berlin’s Isn’t It a Lovely Day], the sublime treatment of the classic song”.

Andrea Keller described the second-placed Matthew Sheens outing as “a beautiful performance, full of intricacy and nuance. His solo performance of Gian Slater’s Gone, Without Saying was utterly exquisite. He had superb touch, amazing polyphony in his playing. Just great overall musical concept and control over the instrument and the recording session.”

Of the winner Matt Thomson, Matt McMahon said the judges were “impressed with his beautiful flow of ideas, which really communicated to the ensemble, we thought. He demonstrated the ability to build on the ideas and bring the ensemble with him.

“All of this was done with the spirit of improvising … and taking things in the moment,” McMahon said. “What helped him was this was all done with a commanding and assured presence at the keyboard, which was very authoritative. A unique harmonic concept spoke through that strong rhythmic language. Very impressed with him.”

So, if we are looking for more winners out this year’s online National Jazz Awards (and why not?) I believe a big success story was the willingness of the adjudicators to talk about the judging process and what they liked in particular in the top three performances.

And, as Matt McMahon told Eugene Ball, “all the finalists, all the pianists deserve a big hurrah for their efforts”.

So hats off to Kade Brown, Max Teakle, James Bowers, Alex Wignall, Casey Golden, Wilbur Whitta and Harrison Mitchell.

And what did I think? I’m no judge, but I particularly liked Matt Thomson, Matt Sheens, Steve Barry and James Bowers. And the bassists.

Final note: Many will have noticed that only two tunes went to air from Max Teakle and from Casey Golden. This was not their fault, nor that of a technical hitch. Eugene Ball revealed that “at the last hour we were unsuccessful in obtaining the rights to broadcast a piece that they had both chosen to perform. Rest assured that the adjudicators did factor [these pieces] into their decision.”


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