Melbourne International Jazz Festival
December 2-5 2021
Stories. That’s what music is about, whether those stories are conveyed via a festival, a concert, a suite, a song or a solo.
Words, whether explanatory or in songs, can help tell stories. Other stories are passed on without words, conveyed powerfully in notes and passages that stir emotions and provoke responses.
The short story of this year’s Melbourne International Jazz Festival is how successfully an October program involving more than 400 artists in 120 events at 30 venues was improvised at short notice into an intensive four days of exhilarating live music in December, albeit with unavoidable clashes and an initial scramble for tickets.
The longer account can begin with a contrast in communication. The Melbourne Recital Centre concert featuring the festival’s inaugural Artist in Residence, Paul Grabowsky, and vocalist Emma Donovan on Saturday night was a triumph in many ways – one being the connections evident between Donovan’s musical grounding in family. There was power in her voice, but just as much in her stories of how grandparents Aileen Bradshaw Quinlan and Micko Donovan, who had “music in their bodies”, had shaped her own love of this gospel-infused music, delivered under the title of The Old Rugged Cross.
As Grabowsky’s lively arrangements gave members of the superb accompanying septet a chance to shine – especially the pianist, Audrey Powne on trumpet, Stephen Magnusson on guitar and Mirko Guerrini on saxophone – Donovan tapped into deep emotions when delivering grandfather Micko’s songs Miracle Man and The Promised Land.
Earlier that evening, when the Australian Art Orchestra’s First Nations Artist in Residence Amos Roach joined AAO musicians Magnusson, Adrian Sherriff and Maria Moles, and the Murrundaya Yepengna dancers, for Six Seasons, this introduction to Indigenous story telling through song cycles was often mesmerising. Roach, deeply expressive on the droning, pulsating yidaki, underpinned this dramatic presentation, but his words of explanation about what we were witnessing in the dancers’ movements came late in the performance, before four short illustrative dances that seemed almost an afterthought. I felt that the appreciative audience could have gained greater understanding of these important ancestral stories with a little more guidance. Clearly, however, the story of the AAO working with First Nations performers is only beginning.
Also on Saturday, but in The Jazzlab, trombonist Ellie Lamb’s suite Between Worlds, commissioned for the MIJF Take Note program, boldly explored identity and the experience of living between genres and genders. Lamb left their talented octet to tell this story without interruption and without announcing the expressive titles of the six pieces: Flying, Falling; Dreaming; Sinking; Drowning; Breaking; and Being.
This non-verbal approach reflected their view, as expressed to ABC radio’s Andrew Ford on The Music Show, that “music is an abstract way of storytelling” and improvised music can convey emotions “in a more tangible way than simply saying words”.
Lamb’s suite was complex and powerful, evoking tension through dissonance that movingly and disturbingly conveyed the confusion, anxiety and dysphoria associated with not necessarily conforming to rigid gender boundaries. The release of tension was evoked by contrasting moods, but most evident in the tumultuous finish. Niran Dasika on trumpet, Madison Carter on drums and Shaun Rammers on tenor sax and clarinet deserve special mention in this compelling musical narrative, as does Lamb on trombone.
A much gentler musical story emerged in the acoustically rich Primrose Potter Salon at the MRC on Thursday December 2 when quartet Aura treated us to a set of thoughtful and beautifully crafted pieces, some originating when band members met in 2019 while at the Banff Centre’s Workshop in Jazz and Improvised Music in Canada directed by Vijay Iyer and Tyshawn Sorey. Tamara Murphy stepped in for Helen Svoboda on bass, joining Audrey Powne trumpet, Flora Carbo alto saxophone and South Australia’s Kyrie Anderson drums. These compositions seemed to reflect the ensemble’s beginnings in the crisp air and open spaces of Banff, as well as wanderings and explorations into new territory. Highlights were Anderson’s Dissociation Daze, with eerie horns building tension and intrigue, and Carbo’s The Ultimate Premiere, featuring unhurried bass work and independent horn journeys with bent trumpet musings and breathy sax.
Delightful ease and fluidity along with seamless mood changes were the hallmarks of a Sunday afternoon outing by the unassuming John Scurry’s Reverse Swing at The Jazzlab. But not only was this superb septet – Scurry guitar, Brennan Hamilton-Smith clarinet, Stephen Grant piano, James Macaulay trombone, Eugene Ball trumpet, Howard Cairns bass, Danny Fischer drums – so musically enticing, but every song played had a story – a history behind it. So from I Live In A House (from a loved Allan Browne poem), through My Cat Moves Like Putin (a mincing walk in an “Elizabethan collar”) to the pre-encore Splendidly Over the Moon (a friend: I’ve met someone) we were treated to brief anecdotes to accompany accomplished musicality. This was a treat.
Another delight came from a rich vein of stories tapped by composer/conductor Johannes Luebbers from members of his dectet as part of A Tapestry in 10 Pieces – a project in which he created 10 works in 10 years, one for each of the 10 players, after engaging each in conversation to ascertain their listening habits, musical loves and technical interests of the featured soloist. At The Jazzlab on Sunday evening the dectet, with Tamara Murphy sitting in for Hiroki Hoshino on bass, played seven of the pieces with such responsiveness and attention to Luebbers’ nuanced direction that each was sublime. Hosh Posh afforded the players a bit more freedom, but other more tightly scripted compositions brought such a broad palette of colours, harmonies and timbres that nothing felt at all constrained. This performance was ultimately the festival highlight for me as well as a demonstration of a composer drawing inspiration and limitations from musicians’ stories.
Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the MRC was a fitting setting for the Sam Anning Septet to launch their recent album Oatchapai, with atmospheric lighting and haze effects ushering us into a slowly unfolding world of mystery. Julien Wilson on bass clarinet set the sombre mood early in the opening Tjurunga and the ensemble added majesty. A break in the sobriety came in Stretchroactivities, which had an old time feel. Spoken word soundscapes delivered by Anning were enigmatic, defying easy interpretation amid the instrumental musical stories, but it was hard to escape the sense of deep questions being asked or matters explored. Ultimately the most compelling stories in this outing came in the integrated and labrinthian musical contributions by the players.
In a much smaller setting, The Jazzlab, on Thursday December 2, trumpeter Mat Jodrell led another great group to launch Grateful, which seemed in its intent “to uplift and keep us headed on the right path” to be so apposite to our pandemic predicament, yet was recorded in February 2019 – a year before the world became much more uncertain. The liner notes said, “In this ever-changing, uncertain world in which we live, to be grateful is one of the most powerful tools we have to bring joy to ourselves and others.”
Jimmy Macbride on drums and Miki Yamanaka and piano were replaced in this outing by Dave Beck and Andrea Keller. The latter was compelling and captivating at the piano, as always, and the former demonstrated clarity, focus and depth of eager involvement throughout. For brevity’s sake let’s revive the old school sports report line that “all players played well”, but in this case really mean that in spades. This was a hugely uplifting concert with which to start four days of festival.
Another launch at The Jazzlab – the Angela Davis Quartet’s Maximilian Project – on Sunday demonstrated saxophonist Davis’s commitment to bring a project to fruition despite pandemic constraints. She was ably supported by Stephen Magnusson on guitar, Frank Di Sario on bass and Patrick Danao on drums. These smooth compositions, drawing on Davis’s experiences of motherhood and raising a newborn child during Covid time, suggest that calmness and strength can be mustered in the face of such challenges.
Last in place, but not least, was the launch of Lost in Place by Reuben Lewis’s I Hold the Lion’s Paw at The Jazzlab on Thursday night, December 2. In the words of reviewer Des Cowley, this album can be summed up as “stripped-down trumpet utterances, electronic soundscapes, and weird vibrations”. Cowley’s comprehensive liner notes conclude that “Lewis has given us a timely meditation on our growing need to navigate a path through overwhelming social, economic and global turmoil, as we seek a place – even if temporarily – to land.”
I arrived late, temporarily lost on the freeway and then heading in the opposite direction to the venue. I found a space and settled in for serious listening, focused on the solemn features of Ronny Ferella at the drum kit. After a while voice artist Emily Bennett launched a totally improvised, slightly distorted monologue that was highly amusing and yet quite pointed in the context of recent social media debates.
I quote some of her words not to suggest they are all that Lost in Place is about, but because it was a significant part of this gig on this night:
“What is jazz really? Is jazz winning an Aria? Is it playing in a jazz festival? Is it saying, ‘I like jazz’? Is it watching jazz? Is it saying ‘I like jazz’? I like it a lot. It sounds jazzy to me and … I’m ready to be … a jazz woman. I’m ready to be the poster girl of the band that’s not mine. I’m ready to have my photo taken. I’m ready to take the sauce bottle and have a fair shake of it…”
These questions can be left without comment. But they added to the Lost in Place story.
And so must the stories of the many gigs at this year’s MIJF that I missed be added to the individual stories behind all the notes played and notes unplayed. And to the stories of each listener at each concert. These are all stories worth hearing.