Jazz women in the pocket – and loving it

REVIEW

Sumire Kuribayashi (Japan) on opening night of the MWIJF 2022

Melbourne Women’s International Jazz Festival 2022
Sunday 4 December – Sunday 11 December
The Jazzlab

The Melbourne Women’s International Jazz Festival celebrated the determination by musicians, organisers and audiences to get back out to create, present and enjoy live music.

Nobody was under the illusion that Covid-19 had gone away – case numbers were rising – but there was a real sense that hearing music performed in person was important, levels of vaccination were relatively high and the artists were ready. Kudos to those wearing masks if that was possible – for example, Andrea Keller at the piano.

This festival delivered in so many ways. All 11 concerts over the eight days were at The Jazzlab in Brunswick, so there were no program clashes. (However, other commitments, and a wheel falling off a rented trailer in Wangaratta, prevented me from attending more than five gigs.)

Many of the outings were double bills and one was a triple, so there was plenty of bang for the proverbial buck.

International pianists appeared on the opening night (Sumire Kuribayashi, Japan) and the festival closer (Meg Morley, expatriate Australian now living in the UK).

Kuribayashi, who impressed audiences at the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz in 2018, appeared courtesy of the Melbourne Jazz Co-operative. Her MWIJF outing in a trio with Sam Anning double bass and Kyrie Anderson drums was a delight, as the Tokyo-based pianist and composer so clearly enjoyed her interaction in the band while sharing compositions of great beauty. In a sublime addition, Niran Dasika – who lived in Japan from 2016-2017 – sat in on trumpet for the last half hour, which included a performance of a piece Kuribayashi composed for him as a farewell after his departure from Tokyo.

Meg Morley was born in Melbourne, but has lived in London for 12 years. She performed a solo set as an opener on Sunday 11 December, thoughtfully introducing and fluidly delivering six pieces from her solo and trio albums. There was space, gentle propulsion and elegance in the chords and free-flowing note sequences, as well as appealing melodies, leaving many of us wanting a longer outing.

The festival drew deeply from the pool of Australian artists, both emerging and established. It was a treat to experience the energy and verve of the reunited Morgana –  Lisa Young voice, Fiona Burnett soprano saxophone, Annette Yates double bass and Sonja Horbelt drums, joined on piano by Andrea Keller – back on stage 30 years after the band’s formation.

This ensemble forged a path for women in Australian improvised music yet had not played for 20 years until a recent Melbourne International Jazz Festival outing. In a 75-minute set at The Jazzlab, they clearly felt invigorated. It was especially good to see festival programmer Horbelt so comfortable at the drum kit in synch with Yates on double bass.

On the same night the MWIJF also brought together luminaries Andrea Keller on piano and Sandy Evans on tenor saxophone in a wonderful, but brief duo outing which included premieres of pieces they had composed for each other – two referencing Keller’s seemingly boundless workload and one Evans’ moving tribute to Archie Roach. This was an exquisite encounter deserving of a future recording session.

On Wednesday 7 December the festival gave Melburnians the opportunity to hear the 2022 Jann Rutherford Memorial Award winner, bassist Lucy Clifford, in a stellar band with Phil Noy tenor sax, Darryn Farrugia drums, Andrea Keller piano and Ashley Ballat trumpet. As promised, this spirited outing delivered raw grooves, explorations “beyond the fringes of genre” and memorable solos from Noy, Keller and Ballat.

On Monday 5 December Ballat featured in a totally different context in the opening set on trumpet and with Ollie Cox on synthesizer in LOOM, each with an array of electronic wizardry. The result was an organic mix of growls, rumbles and cries that evolved constantly, at times evocative of anguish and lamentation, at others delivering a shimmer over a pulsating drone.

The second set that night, Claire Cross’s suite “Sleep Cycle”, called for intense concentration on the part of the musicians as graphs of brain waves taken during the phases of sleep informed a score for an improvising ensemble of trumpet, voice, bass, drums, and synth. The ensemble – Cross on bass/effects, Merinda Dias-Jayasinha voice/effects, Reuben Lewis trumpet/synth/effects and Kyrie Anderson drums – created a detailed soundscape with minute variations culminating in an animated and powerful final phase.

Gen Kuner Quartet, winner of the MWIJF recording prize for 2022. Image: Roger Mitchell

The festival’s welcome determination to present emerging artists was a testament to the breadth of talent in our teaching institutions and those starting their performing lives. By giving young players the opportunity to be on stage in opening acts, MWIJF gave audiences insights into a bright future – that is, if the work is out there for so many youngsters. On opening night we heard a lively, engrossing set from the Gen Kuner Quartet – Kuner on alto saxophone, Abi Lee piano, Jack Dobson bass and Ollie Ledi Henane drums – who were announced later as winners of the festival’s recording prize for 2022.

Melbourne International Jazz Festival’s Take Note 2021 winner, trombonist, vocalist, composer and arranger Ellie Lamb was an energetic director and advocate for the Wednesday 7 December performance by the MWIJF Little Big Band in an outing that was doubly welcome. First, it brought together students from Monash, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and Melbourne Polytechnic, who had only a week and a half to get to know the music and each other.  Second, it was wonderful that the ensemble played compositions by four Australian women – Nadje Noordhuis, Jenna Cave, Andrea Keller and Vanessa Perica. I particularly appreciated the rendition of Perica’s Saint Lazare.

Other emerging artists showcased by the festival included two ensembles from Monash University in Sounding Change on 6 December, and Mia in Motion on 10 December featuring Mia Rowland drums, Ashleigh Howell electric bass, Uyen-My Pham guitar, Adam Davidson piano, Jacobus Barnard tenor saxophone and Alice Mcdonald vocals.

Inclusivity was promoted in the MWIJF this year through Gender Defying Jazz – originally called Girls Do Jazz – a program of workshops run by Andrea Keller, Head of Jazz & Improvisation at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, culminating in a performance on Sunday afternoon 11 December with Sandy Evans. There was also the Jam & hang on 10 December, designed as an opportunity for female and non-binary musicians and vocalists to play or just hang out together.

The fortifying impact of female relationships was the inspiration for vocalist Louisa Rankin’s suite which closed this year’s festival on Sunday 11 December. What a superb band Rankin assembled for this project: Angela Davis alto saxophone, Paul Williamson trumpet, Andrea Keller piano, Fran Swinn guitar, Sam Anning sitting in on double bass for the injured Tom Lee and James McLean drums. Introducing The Lighthouse, which featured outstanding solos by Swinn and Williamson, Rankin paid tribute to the strong, amazing women who were guides and mentors to her during her time as a performer.

Including songs drawing on the experiences of working mothers, the routines of parenthood, the grind of everyday life and the support offered by girlfriends “who just know you”, this suite was a fitting outing to conclude a festival that celebrated the importance of women at work in improvised music.

ROGER MITCHELL

PS: Gigs I missed included Stella: The Miles Franklin Story, Nat Bartsch’s Lullabies,  StAT, Anita Wardell (UK) and Dave McEvoy, Sunny Reyne, and Rebecca Barnard’s launch of her single from new album The Night We Called it a Day

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