Jazz in the Square The Main Stage, Fed Square, Melbourne Saturday 30 April 2022
Australian jazz journal Dingo is keen to support and promote the activities of the jazz community nationally, whether that means involving renowned artists in international concert halls or those starting out in their first jam-sessions.
So there will be free music from noon until 8pm today at Fed Square in Melbourne to celebrate International Jazz Day 2022. The event will also be live streamed via www.dingojazz.com.
The day’s line-up is as follows:
Noon Aviana – with Gian Slater 12:20pm Hoodoo Mayhem – roving 12:40pm Shirazz 1:40pm Small Ensemble 2/3G 1:45pm Hoodoo Mayhem – roving 2:25pm The Pearly Shells, with Julie O’Hara 3:40pm Blakely McLean-Davies Trio 4:30pm XANI 5:45pm Master and Apprentices, with Ross Irwin
6:25pm Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble 7:30pm That Gold Street Sound
According to Dingo editor Adam Simmons, “We’ll be hearing from other artists and organisations from all around Australia and the globe, sharing their International Jazz Day messages. We also have musical contributions from World Jazz Network, SIMA, Melbourne International Jazz Festival, Perth International Jazz Festival and Australian Music Centre.”
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.
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.”