Top Marks and thanks for all the memories

Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues 2022
Friday 28 October to Sunday 30 October


Full marks to this festival – not because everything was perfect (it wasn’t), but because it returned, against the odds.

Also because of Mark, Mark and Marc, who, in the front row of the Wangaratta Performing Arts & Convention Centre on Friday evening, helped remind me of what this festival with such an august history is all about: experiences. Rich, memorable ones.

One Marc lives in Wang and has expertly photographed this festival over the years.

Mark and Mark are regulars who drove from Adelaide to hear and enjoy this feast of music, along with the company of those sharing it. We reminisced. We enthused. We were glad to be back. We kept running into each other at gigs, and ultimately at a well known cheese factory in Milawa on Sunday.

That happy-to-be-here feeling was shared by musicians as well as by patrons, whether they were returning after the postponement of the 30th anniversary festival in 2019 followed by an enforced two-year Covid-19 break, or coming to it for the first time. Yes, it was closely preceded by the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, heavy rain and falling trees prompted late venue changes, numbers were down and the program truncated, but on the plus side there were no queues.

Saxophonist Julien Wilson clearly felt elated in Holy Trinity Cathedral on Saturday morning when, in his first solo concert, he eschewed the use of pedals or effects, which are used in his two new albums Meditations and Mutations (see Bandcamp), saying “the room is enough” and choosing to play “some of mine and some standards”.

We delighted in hearing his expressive reedsmanship in this spectacular setting, demonstrating the versatility of his tenor and soprano instruments, the notes floating freely upwards, often well cushioned by air and intermittently percussive.

The lofty cathedral heights were also host to Scott Tinkler’s 7pm Friday concert with guitarist and fellow Tasmanian Julius Schwing, the shimmering horn notes soaring heavenwards like fluid spaghetti or rasping viscerally against the busy plunking, chattering sounds from the strings.

Late on Saturday afternoon, audience members in Holy Trinity experienced the deep growl of Helen Svoboda’s bowed bass together with the expressive, powerful playing of Kari Ikonen (Finland) on piano. Two pieces using Arabic scales called for microtonal adjustments to the grand piano – Taqsim in Maqam Saba and the dramatic, intense Rasthof Sieben in Maqam Rast. Solo pieces brought us the freneticism of Svoboda’s Happy Storm and Ikonen’s deeply evocative Toccatina. It was the perfect setting for such an engrossing duo encounter.

Also fascinating in the cathedral was the unusual pairing of classically trained Natasha Fearnside on bass clarinet with her partner in life Sam Anning on acoustic and electric bass. They played a suite, written during Melbourne’s Covid-19 lockdown, entitled She Gathered Strength in Her Skin. Inspired by the resilience of the city, plus ensuing regeneration and healing, this exploration of timbres felt liturgical, especially so because Anning’s vocal contribution was akin to a chant. The set refreshingly broke new ground.

Wanderlust, however, felt like putting on a pair of most comfortable slippers as this accomplished ensemble took to the WPACC Theatre stage on Saturday afternoon to celebrate their 30th anniversary. The septet led by Miroslav Bukovsky on trumpet treated us to a series of masterful solos in Delicatessence, Bronte Café and Mambo Gumbo before I had to leave, but there was time enough to share in the obvious merriment of irrepressible ’bone player James Greening.   

At noon that day in WPAC Theatre, Stephen Magnusson on guitar was gleeful as he joined Sam Anning bass and Dave Beck drums in a series of smooth segues from tune to tune, ending with pieces by Tom Waits and Archie Roach. There was plenty of swing and few sharp edges to a set palpably as much fun to play as to hear.

The fun with vocalist Jess Hitchcock’s concert at 8pm on Saturday came possibly from guessing who she’d be playing with – the line-up wasn’t in the two-page festival program or even on the website. The smiles came when we realised her band on this occasion comprised Andrea Keller piano, Tamara Murphy bass, Eugene Ball trumpet, James Macaulay trombone and Dave Beck drums. What a band!

Hitchcock, known for her work with Archie Roach, Paul Kelly, Deborah Cheetham and Kate Miller-Heidke, has had a love for jazz since the age of 17. She delivered songs including Taking a Chance on Love and Get Happy, using Ball’s arrangements, with power and ease.

An hour later, also in WPAC Theatre, it was a blast to watch and hear the four Antripodean Collective musicians given the freedom to do anything and take us anywhere with no restrictions other than the time limit. Scott Tinkler led this band of intense improvisers – Erkki Veltheim on five-string electric violin, Ren Walters guitar and percussion, and Simon Barker on drums – in a take-no-prisoners outing that displayed ferocity and vehemence, yet also some quietude between explosive attacks and extended volleys.

In a few instances Walters lifted his guitar and yelled into it, to powerful effect. This was a thrilling event.

Two opening night performances in the theatre provided totally different musical experiences that I’m certain were memorable and rewarding for the audiences as well as performers.

Iro Haarla shows her appreciation after a beautiful outing with Tamara Murphy and James McLean at Wang 2022.

In their first trio outing, Iro Haarla (Finland) on piano teamed with Tamara Murphy on bass and James McLean on drums in a performance brimming with space and interest. Haarla evidently loved the work of the two Australians – saying “Tam and James rock” – as they played five of her pieces plus Kindness Not Courtesy (Murphy) and M31 (McLean).

Haarla, who had alternated between concert harp and piano at the Melbourne jazz festival, was entrancing at the keyboard, dedicating her piece With Thanksgiving to “everything beautiful in this world” and the “good in my life”. McLean was superb throughout at the kit, and in the abstract Waterworn Rocks all three players energetically wove independent yet interlocking paths.

Light in the Sadness closed a beautiful concert that was good for the soul.

An hour later, the super group This World – Mike Nock piano, Jonathan Zwartz bass, Julien Wilson tenor saxophone and Hamish Stuart drums – treated us to an example of why jazz or improvised music offers so much.

They delivered attentiveness, mutual understanding, responsiveness and excellence in execution throughout, playing four pieces off their new album Another Dance, plus the title track from their first album This World and an encore, Riverside, featuring Wilson in a glorious gospel-imbued solo. It was an outstanding gig and a great way finish Friday night.

The decision to hold a program of free concerts in the WPACC Theatre on Sunday no doubt upset some who had paid for weekend festival passes. It also meant that, with five National Jazz Awards finalists competing in the WPACC Hall on Saturday, anyone wanting to hear them play had to miss other concerts over a period of three hours, including judging.

Also, to quibble further, the judges’ presentation to the winners took place in a private area, with results going out via social media, which seemed a pity for those who’d been in the audience to hear all contestants.

I chose the NJA option, unfortunately missing Ball Hanlon & Schulz, the Melbourne Jazz Co-operative’s drumming event “Indivisible” and Andrea Keller’s group PATsy.

Congratulations are due to Peter Koopman, Joshua Meader and Julius Schwing, who won – respectively – $7000 and a Pughouse Studio recording session, $4000 and $2000. As always it was undeniably a tough task for the judges – this year Stephen Magnusson, Fran Swinn and Carl Dewhurst. The band accompanying the contestants – Jo Lawry vocals, Brett Hirst bass, James McLean drums – were excellent.

I’m no judge. But I thought Harry Tinney from Canberra showed sensitivity and expression, as well as giving us some interesting information about his well chosen pieces, including Ambrose Akinmusire’s Henya. Theo Carbo also selected wisely and blew me away (almost literally in the front row) with his high volume shredding in A Short Film. I haven’t heard much since, but loved it.

The lean Sunday program meant I could attend my first ever jazz mass in the cathedral. Tim Neal played piano, his own Hammond and the newly restored Willis pipe organ – it’s a ripper. Rebecca Barnard sang with gusto and the sermon referenced slavery and the blues. The real star for me, other than the skull on Tim Neal’s shirt, was that pipe organ. I’d love to hear Anthony Pateras or a similarly inclined artist give it a whirl next year in a separate festival gig.

An engaging set by Merinda Dias-Jayasinha in her quartet at Merriwa Cheese Factory was warmly received after lunch on Sunday.

Back in town the WPACC Theatre was crowded later for two large ensemble outings. Many were up dancing during the laid back Public Opinion Afro Orchestra performance that closed the festival – much earlier than in previous years – at 6.15pm. There would be no late-night jam session at the Pinsent Hotel this year.

My best final festival moments came earlier, when Travis Woods and the Horns of Leroy welcomed musicians from Jazzaratta on stage, along with energetic vocalist Thando, to bring us Fat’s Domino’s I’m Walkin’, in which young percussionists Henry and Hamish stole the limelight.

It was a fun way to finish.


PS: I popped in for a few minutes to hear the Fran Swinn Quartet – look for her new album Old Idea/New Idea on Lionsharecords. Sources close to me said the Angela Davis Quartet was great, as was Showa 44, and Michelle Nicolle Quartet’s Bach project. Clashes were inevitable in such a tight program. I felt for Jiem, the quintet from Sydney who had a half-hour slot.

PPS: More images to be added in due course.

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