Category Archives: JAZZ FESTIVALS

Jazz festivals in and around Melbourne and Victoria

BEYOND, AND WITH, WORDS

Ellen Kirkwood Ellen Kirkwood performs in [A]part with Gian Slater and Sandy Evans.    Image: Roger Mitchell

REVIEW

Wangaratta Festival of Jazz, November 2-4, 2018

Music speaks for itself. That’s what visiting saxophonist from Holland, Yuri Honing – a man of few words – told the audience in Wangaratta’s Performing Arts Centre Theatre on Saturday night during his quartet’s second festival outing.

He’s right, of course. The music delivered at Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues this year conveyed some powerful messages and crossed cultural boundaries without needing the embroidery of words.

Honing, with his acoustic quartet Wolfert Brederode (Holland) on piano, Gulli Gudmundsson (Iceland) on bass and Joost Lijbaart (Holland) on drums, spoke eloquently with his tenor saxophone in two concerts featuring compositions from their 2017 album Goldbrun. These guys knew each other and the pieces well, the horn soaring and gently musing over the responsive rhythm section in long explorations that varied in energy and intensity, but often seemed darkly brooding. Honing’s concerns for Europe and love of works by Wagner and Richard Strauss were inspirations, but spelled out only in the music.

Yet words and music are often inextricably linked. That relationship can be fraught – how can what we experience in a live concert possibly be described adequately in a string of superlatives? Yet the strength in soul singer Tina Harrod’s exceptionally clearly articulated songs from her album City of Longing, performed on Sunday in WPAC Theatre, came certainly from her strong vocals, but also in the hard-hitting lyrics.

Vikram Iyengar

Vikram Iyengar in The Calling by Adam Simmons  Image: Roger Mitchell

Festival artistic team member Adam Simmons introduced his deeply personal work The Calling, part of his The Usefulness of Art series of concerts, with words, yet it was the performance by his Creative Music Ensemble with Afrolankan Drumming System and Vikram Iyengar, helped by screened visuals, that conveyed the colour, noise, mayhem and moving moments of his journey so effectively.

I have reviewed The Calling previously from a performance at fortyfive downstairs, but for Wangaratta festival patrons this must have surely been a lively, energetic and virtuosic musical journey full of colours, flavours and fun, yet also most moving.

In St Pat’s Hall on Sunday, multi-instrumentalist Adrian Sheriff and drum maestro Ted Vining took the audience on a fascinating journey that came with stories, but conveyed much via the simple musical exchanges between two accomplished players. I wish I’d been there for all of this.

In a festival that did not suffer at all from its forays into other traditions and cultures than the American jazz pantheon, there seemed to be – and these words are probably not ideal – concerts for the brain and concerts for the heart. In other words, some concerts took us on conceptual journeys and others just swept us up and carried us along with their vigour, energy or beauty.

Tilman Robinson

Tilman Robinson at work with the AAO.    Image: R. Mitchell

On Friday night in WPAC Theatre the Australian Art Orchestra presented Sometimes Home Can Grow Stranger Than Space, in which three composers – AAO director Peter Knight, Tilman Robinson and Andrea Keller – explored the lives of people damaged by war.

In Knight’s Sharp Folds, which offered glimpses of lingering parental grief, the individual words – voiced by Georgie Darvidis – were not all that easy to pick up amid the engrossing and intense accompanying music. Keller’s Bent Heart, which draws on the stories of three women, conveyed their angst so effectively that no words were needed, although the epilogue’s prayer “Cry heart but never break” stays with me. Robinson’s I Was Only A Child brilliantly drew on the rhythm and cadence of a recorded interview between a young student and a war veteran to show how awareness of war turns to nostalgia, its lessons unlearned. In content reminiscent of Lloyd Swanton’s monumental work Ambon, performed at Wangaratta in 2015, this AAO outing used music compositions and words most effectively, their messages lingering.

On Saturday evening in WPAC Theatre Sirens Big Band performed [A]part, trumpeter Ellen Kirkwood’s suite responding to world issues such as climate change, the refugee crisis and the omnipresence of the internet. As with Keller’s Bent Heart, this monumental work – comprising sweeping vistas, swelling and receding soundscapes and powerful solos from Sandy Evans on saxophone and Keller on piano – needed no words to convey drama, tension and agitation, as well as loss and suffering. Gian Slater’s vocal contributions were minimal but integral to this work, which was riveting from start to finish.

Alex Stuart

Alex Stuart performs with his quintet.    Image: R. Mitchell

The quintet that expatriate Australian Alex Stuart brought from his home city Paris treated us to compositions from their album Aftermath, which explored the darkness in the world while celebrating its beauty and defiant joie de vivre. This versatile band – Stuart on guitar, Irving Acao on tenor saxophone and keyboards, Arno de Casanove on trumpet, keys and vocals, Antoine Banville on drums and Ouriel Ellert on electric bass – delivered sophisticated, varied and polished pieces in two outings. Stuart was unselfish in leading this collegiate ensemble, which displayed plenty of verve and drive along with intricacy and finesse in thoughtful compositions.

Sumire Kubayashi (Japan) at the piano.

Sumire Kubayashi (Japan) at the piano. Image: Roger Mitchell

Another standout Australian artist with recent overseas experience was trumpeter Niran Dasika, who demonstrated confidence and soloing depth forged in Japan through playing a lot of gigs there. Clashing concerts prevented me hearing the whole of all but one of Dasika’s many festival outings, but on Sunday morning he joined Japan’s Sumire Kuribayashi on piano to play her Pieces of Colour compositions with Shun Ishiwaka (Japan) on drums, James Macaulay on trombone and Sam Anning on bass, with Adam Simmons on tenor saxophone for some pieces. This music was exquisitely beautiful, at times playful and also powerful, further proof that collaborations between Australian and Japanese artists bring great results.

I missed hearing the product of one such collaboration – James Macaulay on trombone leading the Hishakaku Quartet – in order not to miss superstars Andrea Keller on piano and Sandy Evans on reeds in an unprecedented duo at Holy Trinity Cathedral. Gender ought not to be an issue in music, yet this set of mostly ballads demonstrated the power, profundity and beauty of compositions and musicianship by two amazing women. Lilac Embers, dedicated to Richard Gill, was a delight.

Evans was among the host of jazz luminaries to perform in WPAC Theatre on Sunday in the dectet Ten Part Invention, introduced by the ensemble’s founder, John Pochee. In a spirited set that included Roger Frampton’s And Zen Monk, Paul Cutlan’s Nock on Effect, Evans’ Fortea Two and Miroslav Bukovsky’s no holds barred Plain Talk, this band showed why it remains at the peak of large ensemble achievements in Australia. My highlight was reedsman Andrew Robson’s Poets Must Keep an Eye on the Moon.

Germany’s Trio ELF was an instant hit with audiences at their Saturday evening concert in WPAC Theatre and on Sunday in the newly styled St Pat’s Hall with tables and a bar. Walter Lang on piano, Peter Cudek on acoustic bass and Gerwin Eisenhauer on drums added a little electronic wizardry and lots of humour to their melodically and rhythmically appealing compositions. Their approach made excellent use of sudden dramatic dynamic variations, beginning each piece with a simple tune repeated, adding effects, pumping up the volume and intensity via bass and expansive work from Eisenhauer, before returning to the fluid simplicity of the piano notes. Their cover of punk band Blink 182’s Down was a favourite.

Recently formed Quattro Club’s Saturday morning outing sported such an array of whistles and bells that I tried closing my eyes to concentrate on the feast of exploratory textures and timbres. Joel Hands-Otte played Bb Clarinet, bass clarinet, bamboo flute and a plastic pipe. Dan Gordon played tuba and bass flugelhorn. Mirko Guerrini played curved soprano sax, tenor sax, baritone sax, xaphoon, Pakistani flute and melodica. Niko Schauble was at the drum kit. It really was akin to kids building a series of projects with Lego blocks, yet without haste and with plenty of assurance. It possibly did not always hang together, but I loved the adventurous, unscripted approach.

Two long-form suite performances that I had heard previously and liked a lot, but did not get to at this festival – trumpeter Reuben Lewis’s I Hold the Lion’s Paw on Sunday and Cheryl Durongpisitkul’s Follow Me Through the Red Ash on Saturday – drew praise from many who attended.

One of the standout cultural collaborations at Wangaratta was The Three Seas, bringing modern jazz together with West Bengali folk music. Matt Keegan on saxophone joined Steve Elphick on bass, Raju Das Baul on vocals and khamak, Deo Ashis Mothey on vocals, guitar and dotora, and Gaurab Chatterjee on dubki, drums in two warmly engaging and virtuosic displays of musicianship on Friday and Sunday evenings. The interaction of Keegan with amazing vocalist Das Baul exemplified the close bonds formed among all these musicians, demonstrating again how well music succeeds in crossing boundaries.

I caught only part of another successful collaboration on Sunday afternoon when Julian Banks on saxophone joined Indonesian master percussionist Cepi Kusmiadi on the kendang sunda, a set of two-headed drums, along with James Hauptmann on drums and Chris Hale on bass. And I copped some justified criticism later that evening for not letting on in time that the Garden Quartet – featuring Iranian musician Gelareh Pour on kamancheh and voice, Mike Gallichio on electric guitar, Arman Habibi on santur and voice, and Brian O’Dwyer on drums – should not be missed.

Expectations can be dangerous. A restrained acoustic set in WPAC Theatre by guitarist Ben Hauptmann’s “ideal” septet of accomplished musicians was not what I had anticipated. It was a great line-up – Arne Hanna and Franco Raggatt on guitar, Harry Sutherland on piano, festival co-programmer Zoe Hauptmann on bass, James Hauptmann on drums and Evan Mannell on percussion – and there was no denying their musicianship, but selections played seemed more akin to French folk than jazz, and the pieces did not vary greatly.

I had no idea what to expect from the only US band, FORQ, which comprises Henry Hey on keyboards, Chris McQueen on guitar, Jason “JT” Thomas on drums and Kevin Scott on electric bass. In their final outing of two at the festival on Sunday night in WPAC Theatre they delivered an energetic rock-infused set, but nothing to rival the work of popular Snarky Puppy, of which McQueen is a member.

The fully pumped Orszaczky Budget Orchestra, fronted by Tina Harrod and Darren Percival on vocals, closed out the festival in St Pat’s Hall with a set so loud that I sought relief for my ears towards the back. I liked the setting of “Club St Pat’s” but missed the final night jam where musicians and fans mingled and celebrated music performed and music enjoyed.

To sum up in words what often speaks for itself, the eclectic mix of improvised music at 2018’s festival again delivered plenty to satisfy fans, again on a limited budget and this time without big internationally renowned names or a lot from the American songbook. Culturally diverse offerings worked well, as did the significant European contributions.

Some new, festival-initiated collaborations between visiting and Australian artists would have been icing on the cake.

Words were important in some instances, and the forceful messages of “concept-based” concerts by the AAO and Sirens will play on in my mind for some time.

ROGER MITCHELL

More images of the festival will be posted when time permits.

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CHORDS REFLECT CRISES, CULTURES

Cheryl

Cheryl Durongpisitkul performs Follow Me Through the Red Ash.      Image: Roger Mitchell

PREVIEW

Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues, November 2-4, 2018

Most music fans going to “Wang” this year will have made that decision some time ago, so this is intended as a guide to the myriad jazz gigs on offer.

With the Invictus Games fresh in our minds, the Australian Art Orchestra’s Friday night concert (8pm WPAC Theatre) entitled Sometimes Home Can Grow Stranger than Space is an appropriate starting point. Based on a concept by Paul Grabowsky AO, composers Andrea Keller, Tilman Robinson and AAO Artistic Director Peter Knight focus on those who tried to pick up their ‘normal’ lives after the war. In three world premieres inspired by Monash University Faculty of Arts’ One Hundred Stories – which remember not only the men and women who lost their lives, but also those gassed, crippled, insane and irreparably damaged by war who returned to Australia – the composers employ archival recordings, tape, electronics and improvisation. Expect this to be challenging and affecting.

Similarly significant and topical issues will be addressed musically on Saturday (6.30pm WPAC Theatre) when Sirens Big Band performs [A]part: an hour-long suite by trumpet player Ellen Kirkwood, featuring Andrea Keller (piano), Sandy Evans (saxophones) and Gian Slater (voice). This work is a response to world issues such as climate change, the refugee crisis and the omnipresence of the internet. This predominantly female and trans band is sure to deliver an arresting performance.

Alex Stuart

Alex Stuart.                      Image: Roger Mitchell

It’s great to have expatriate Australian guitarist Alex Stuart over from Paris again, this time with his French band – Irving Acao tenor saxophone and keyboards, Arno de Casanove trumpet and keyboards, Antoine Banville drums and Ouriel Ellert bass. Stuart’s fourth album, Aftermath (2017), reflects the dark turning points the world is facing, but is inspired by “the omnipresent and evident beauty that surrounds us”. Word is that this band is tight as and hot.

The quintet’s two outings (7.30pm Friday WPAC Hall and noon Saturday St Pat’s Hall) suffer a little from inevitable festival overlaps, but Melbourne audiences can also catch the band at 8pm on November 4 at The Jazzlab.

Less thematically concrete but definitely referencing the environment, Cheryl Durongpisitkul’s suite Follow Me Through the Red Ash (4pm Saturday, St Pat’s Hall) will draw on techniques in Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, Petrushka to explore what Nikos Fotakis has described as a musical narrative that is “a kind of mystical environmental fairy tale, about the balance of power within an ecosystem”.

This year’s program places less emphasis on the American jazz tradition, offering an eclectic mix of artists and influences from Europe, Japan, India, Iran, Moravia, Sri Lanka, the Middle East and Indonesia.

As well as Stuart’s quintet, Europe is well represented by saxophonist Yuri Honing (Holland) and Trio Elf (Germany), both certain to be festival highlights.

Honing’s conviction that Europe is undervalued, along with his love for classical music, history and art, influenced his 2017 album Goldbrun. Desire was Holland’s No.1 best selling album in 2015. Honing on tenor saxophone will join Wolfert Brederode (Holland) on piano, Gulli Gudmundsson (Iceland) on bass and Joost Lijbaart (Holland) on drums for two concerts (10pm Friday, and 10.30pm Saturday, WPAC Theatre). Expect peace, serenity, tension and mysticism.

Trio Elf

Trio Elf. Image: Uli-Zrenner-Wolkenstein

Trio Elf’s acoustic line-up comprises Walter Lang on piano (expressive melodies and energetic chords), Peter Cudek on acoustic bass (melodious counterpoint and low-register synth-like grooves) and Gerwin Eisenhauer (a drum machine come alive). In two concerts (8.30pm Saturday, WPAC Theatre and 8.30pm Sunday, St Pat’s Hall) expect jazz, classical, rock and electronic influences from a trio crossing between the modernistic, hyper-rhythmic and a more lyrical, traditional approach.

Connections between Australian and Japanese musicians will bear fruit at Wang this year in three outings. Recently returned after time in Japan, Australian trumpeter Niran Dasika will join Japan’s Sumire Kuribayashi – known for her storytelling on piano – to present KIRI (noon Saturday, Holy Trinity Cathedral), a suite inspired by the ‘nihonga’ paintings of Kaii Higashiyama. In a dectet on Sunday (noon, WPAC Theatre) Dasika and Kuribayashi will present longer forms and orchestral textures in her Pieces of Colour, along with Akihiro Yoshimoto (saxophones), Reiko Yamamoto (vibes), Tomohiro Yahiro (percussion), Yuki Ito (bass), Hideaki Kanazawa (bass), Hiro Kimura (drums), Kengo Komae (drums) and Australia’s James Macaulay (trombone).

On Saturday (2pm, WPAC Hall) Macaulay will lead the Hishakaku Quartet – named after a Yakitori restaurant in Tokyo – with Dasika on trumpet, Marty Holoubek on bass and Japan’s Shun Ishiwaka on drums. Their debut album, recorded in Tokyo in October last year, features compositions by Macaulay, Dasika and Holoubek.

Indian musical traditions will be reflected in three concerts at Wang, two featuring cross-cultural ensemble The Three Seas (9.30pm Friday, WPAC Hall and 8pm Sunday, WPAC Theatre). Fusing modern Australian jazz with West Bengali folk music, the band comprises Matt Keegan on saxophone, Steve Elphick on bass, Raju Das Baul on vocals and khamak, Deo Ashis Mothey vocals, guitar and dotora, Gaurab Chatterjee on dubki and drums. Expect echoes of traditional Baul, carnatic and Nepalese folk songs in danceable music that radiates joy. Raj Das Baul will also perform solo (3.30pm Sunday, Cathedral) on khamak, a string instrument originating in India, drawing on the rich folk forms of Baul music.

Gelareh Pour

Gelareh Pour Image: Roger Mitchell

Contemporary Persian and Western motifs will blend (7pm Sunday, WPAC Hall) when Gelareh Pour’s Garden Quartet guarantees to sway the heart and persuade the feet to tap. The band features Pour on kamancheh (Persian spiked fiddle) and voice, Mike Gallichio on electric guitar, Arman Habibi on santur (Persian hammered dulcimer) and voice, and Brian O’Dwyer on drum kit.

Composer and oud virtuoso Joseph Tawadros AM will seamlessly bring middle-eastern and classical music together with jazz and his sharp wit on Sunday (5.30pm, Cathedral). Moravian influences will be evident when pianist Emil Viklicky – known for his response to Janacek’s Sinfonietta – performs in a duo with trumpeter Miroslav Bukovsky (1.30pm Sunday, Cathedral).

Adding to the international collaborations abundant at this festival, Indonesian master percussionist Cepi Kusmiadi will perform on the kendang sunda, a set of two-headed drums, with Australian musicians Julian Banks on saxophone, James Hauptmann on drums and Chris Hale on bass (4.30pm Sunday, WPAC Hall). They will perform music from their new album Agung, recorded in Denpasar to reflect their climbing of the volcano and good friends tackling adventure head on.

The Calling

Ray Pereira and Kanchana Karunaratna in The Calling. Image: Roger Mitchell

Sri Lanka is the focus of The Calling (1pm Saturday, WPAC Theatre), the fourth project in Adam Simmons’ acclaimed The Usefulness of Art concert series. This intensely personal work, performed by the Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble with Afrolankan Drumming System and Vikram Iyengar, was inspired by sounds and experiences from Simmons’ first visit to Sri Lanka. Don’t miss it, if only to see whether Ray Pereira smiles.

Collaborations among Australian musicians have for many years delivered patrons at Wang the performances that are the most inspiring and long lasting in their impact. The huge amount of hard work and talent in this nation’s jazz musicians is regularly showcased at this festival. This year is no exception.

On Saturday (1pm, Cathedral) Sydney’s saxophonist, composer and educator Sandy Evans OAM will join Melbourne’s pianist, composer and educator Andrea Keller for a duo set that will undoubtedly delight. And on Sunday (3pm WPAC Theatre) one of our finest large ensembles, Ten Part Invention, will present some classic compositions from founding member Roger Frampton as well as new works by current band members. What a host of talent: Miroslav Bukovsky trumpet/musical director, Sandy Evans saxophones/musical director, Andrew Robson saxophones, Paul Cutlan saxophones, John Mackey saxophones, Warwick Alder trumpet, James Greening trombone, Paul McNamara piano, Steve Elphick bass, Dave Goodman drums.

Another concert not to let slip past unnoticed features Quattro Club (11am Saturday, WPAC Theatre) a new quartet consisting of Niko Schauble drums, Mirko Guerrini woodwinds, Joel Hands-Otte woodwinds and Dan Gordon tuba. Expect compositions as starting points, gently morphing group explorations and superb solos.

And for lovers of soul, vocalist Tina Harrod (1pm Sunday, WPAC Theatre) is sure to wow audiences with songs from her latest album City of Longing, performed with Stu Hunter on piano, Dave Symes bass, Matt Keegan saxophone, Evan Mannell drums, James Greening trombone, Cameron Deyell guitar, Ray Cassar trumpet, and on vocals Virna Sanzone, Evelyn Duprai and Lisa Spence.

For those who like their musicians to be daring or dangerous, trumpeter Reuben Lewis will lead Melbourne psychedelic jazz collective I Hold the Lion’s Paw in an outing (2pm Sunday, St Pat’s Hall) offering a trance-inducing concoction of electro-acoustic noise and slowly evolving soundtracks. Collective members on this occasion are Jordan Murray trombone, Cheryl Durongpisitkul alto sax and flute, Adam Halliwell guitar, David Brown electric bass, Maria Moles drums and Tom Lee double bass.

No festival should be without some fun, and Wang promises to deliver that via two concerts. Canada’s The Shuffle Demons (10pm Saturday, WPAC Hall) wear spectacular hand-painted suits and love to parade through the audience as they play a mix of funk jazz, hard bop jazz and jazz rap. On sax and vocals are Richard Underhill, Matt Lagan and Shawn Nykwist, while Michael Herring contributes bass and vocals and Stich Wynston drums and vocals. That’s a lot of vocals. Expect wild romps into the crowd, free jazz, danceable funk, poetry and killer solos.

A Great Rack and an Empty Reverb (6pm Sunday, St Pat’s Hall) is apparently a cross between jazz and stand up comedy, with Maria Moles (drums/percussion), Adam Halliwell (guitar/synth) and Emily Bennett (vocals/effects rack) offering what we might encounter at a New York comedy club in a weird parallel universe.

And no festival these days can be without a band that can appeal to a younger audience. After all, the occasional longstanding jazz follower at Wang may be a little long in the tooth. (Who said that?) So, the big attraction this year in that space, gathering the right metrics, will be the US outfit FORQ (9.15pm Saturday, St Pat’s Hall and 10pm Sunday, WPAC Theatre). FORQ was founded by keyboardist Henry Hey (David Bowie, Empire of the Sun, Jeff “Tain” Watts) and bassist Michael League (Grammy-winning leader of Snarky Puppy). Now Kevin Scott on bass joins Hey, Chris McQueen (Snarky Puppy, Bokanté) on guitar and Jason “JT” Thomas (Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor, Marcus Miller, D’Angelo) on drums. The band’s third album Thrēq (pronounced “threek”) was released late in 2017.

Drums are the featured instrument in the National Jazz Awards, the 10 finalists being Alex Hirlian, 24 (Sydney, NSW), Alex Reid, 25 (Perth, WA), Alexander Inman-Hislop, 25 (Petersham, NSW), Alf Jackson, 27 (Hobart, Tas), Angus Mason, 25 (Glengowie, SA), Damien Ellis, 32 (Thornbury, Vic), James McLean, 28 (Preston, Vic), Josh Baldwin, 33 (Adelaide, SA), Lewis Pierre-Humbert, 27 (Tecoma, Vic), and Oli Nelson, 25 (Redfern, NSW). The hard-working support band comprises Stu Hunter piano, Brendan Clarke bass and Paul Cutlan saxophones. The judges are David Jones, Hamish Stuart, Dave Goodman.

After all that listening to other drummers, Jones will join Evri Evripidou on six-string bass (9pm Sunday, WPAC Hall) as Third Ear to create sonicscapes “born without pre-conception”.

There are other Wang concerts not mentioned in this guide, but that does not mean they won’t entrance, enthral and appeal.

St Pat’s Hall will be set out differently this year, offering a club-like atmosphere. And that will be setting for the closing concert of the festival, The Orszaczky Budget Orchestra, which celebrates the energy, passion, and dazzlingly inventive arrangements of Hungarian-born bandleader, composer and visionary Jackie Orszaczky, who died of Lymphoma in 2008. Fronted by Tina Harrod and vocalist Darren Percival, the ensemble will feature many players who performed regularly with Jackie over the years. With Dave Symes bass, Hamish Stuart drums, Stu Hunter keys, Clayton Doley keys, Arne Hanna guitar, Matt Keegan saxophone, James Greening trombone and Virna Sanzone backing vocals, this should wrap up Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues in style.

ROGER MITCHELL

SUSTENANCE FOR THE SOUL

The Gravity Project

The Gravity Project                      Image: Roger Mitchell

REVIEW

Melbourne International Jazz Festival, 1 – 10 June 2018

Paul Grabowsky AO wrote Tokyo Overpass with Haruki Murakami’s novel IQ84 as inspiration — the story of a young woman who climbs down a ladder from an elevated highway when her taxi is stuck in a traffic jam and enters a parallel universe.

That could be a metaphor for this festival’s engrossing opening concert, The Gravity Project, a cross-cultural exchange with the Tokyo Jazz Festival featuring Japan’s Kuniko Obina on koto, Masaki Nakamura on shakuhachi and Tokyo resident Aaron Choulai on laptop/electronics.

In three pieces — Beat Hayashi, Tokyo Overpass and Plum Rain (the latter allegedly conjuring Burt Bacharach as a manga character) — this octet with Grabowsky (piano), Rob Burke (reeds), Niran Dasika (trumpet), Marty Holoubek (bass) and James McLean (drums) took us to a very different and exciting place that commanded attention and demanded immediate designation as a festival highlight.

This was riveting, abstract and at times surreal music, bristling with sometimes piercing shakuhachi notes, electronic squeaks, bent-note “gulps”, stuttering voices (a la Max Headroom), disruptive horns and koto notes tangible enough to touch. Yet amid the complexity, drama and tension there were periods of exquisitely beautiful simplicity. What a magnificent way to begin 10 days of music. This was indeed a highlight.

Also compelling were the pieces played when reedsman Tony Malaby (US) joined Kris Davis (Canada) on piano and Simon Barker (Australia) for a take-no-prisoners outing on Monday 4 June at The Jazzlab. There were tunes — Alechinsky, Kei’s Dream, Warblepeck, Bird Call and Remolino — but, as Malaby said in a 2015 interview, “I’m not writing tunes, but providing an opening sentence or paragraph.” All three musicians needed no more.

This was not a concert for the faint-hearted. But the audience probably knew what to expect, which was the unexpected — music challenging in its abstractness and complexity.

I was reminded of my experience when reading that magnificent novel Lincoln in the Bardo: difficult to get into at first and then totally consuming once I had entered that world. All made sense once my frame of reference shifted.

Some in the audience no doubt heard in Malaby’s work elements of Lovano, Coltrane, Ayler or Shepp. Instead, I valued many facets of this outing: patterns, contrasts, mayhem, beauty, responsiveness, intensity, variations in dynamics, sharp edges, peaceful interludes, sprinklings of notes (Davis), lashings of sound, guttural growlings, rumbling cascades, shifts in rhythm and tempo, disrupting abruptness of drums, airy resonance of reeds, gradual serenity, release and relief.

On 6 June at the same venue Malaby and Davis joined Scott Tinkler (Tasmania) and the Monash Art Ensemble to play Davis’s arrangements of music from Malaby’s Novela project. As the nonet played Floating Head, Mother’s Love, Warblepeck, Floral and Herbaceous, and Remolino, I marvelled at the exquisite intricacy, textural richness and encapsulated imagery in this wonderful music, delivered so well by students and their mentors. Again I was feeling the notes in 3D, tangible enough to touch. Tinkler, muted and otherwise, was superb, as were Rob Burke on bass clarinet, Josh Bennier on trombone, Jared Becker on baritone, and — so often — Dan Gordon on tuba. (It would be great to see women students in the Monash Art Ensemble, but I understand that the gender imbalance has deeper roots than university level.)

Quite a few festival gigs were sold out. Two concerts on 7 June brought the London club scene to The Jazzlab in a warmly energetic and engaging outing by tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia and her killer band — Joe Armon-Jones on piano, Daniel Casimir on double bass and Femi Koleoso on drums. There were solos —including Garcia’s in the closing piece that took her tenor, which was never harsh or abrasive, into deep, resonant territory — but this was very much a team effort, attentiveness and responsiveness built in. The rhythm section was a treat to hear on its own and Koleoso’s intensity never let up. This group made me want to check out the London scene, soon.

Another set of concerts that were sold out were four at The Jazzlab on 9 & 10 June featuring frequent visitor to Australia, bassist Christian McBride, with his piano-less band New JawnMarcus Strickland on bass clarinet, soprano and tenor saxes, Josh Evans on trumpet and Nasheet Waits on drums.

McBride was characteristically engaging at the mic between songs, but as the band worked through Walkin’ Funny (McBride), Sightseeing (Shorter), Kush (Waits), Seek the Source (Strickland), the tribute to a departed friend John Day (McBride) and a jaunty version of The Good Life (Ornette Coleman) I felt that these accomplished players could really have done it all in their sleep and possibly needed some.

Waits’ work stood out throughout and especially behind the impressive Evans’s solos, and John Day featured McBride in a great duo with Strickland on bass clarinet. But there wasn’t quite the intensity and drive, or the fire, that I’d hoped for from this line-up on the night. Others will probably disagree — I doubt that many patrons left dissatisfied.

About now a warm glow suffuses across this review as I recall two similarly packed 9.30pm concerts at The Jazzlab —on Sunday 3 June, featuring Terri Lyne Carrington & Social Science, and, on Tuesday 5 June, Harry James Angus’s Struggle With Glory.

The lighting was the only possible complaint about the Social Science outing, Debo Ray passionately delivering emotive vocals in the near darkness while interacting with the rapid yet smooth moves of white-clad Kassa Overall, who was in full glare of a spotlight for his cryptic rap. Carrington at the drum kit was the linchpin of this sextet, which also featured Aaron Parks on keys, Morgan Guerin on sax and Matthew Stevens on guitar, but she sought none of the limelight as they gently, but potently explored racism, discrimination, police killings and the need “to pray the hate away”.

Outside afterwards a couple of shockingly racist would-be patrons brought to the fore our similar problems in this country, but I left the gig with the feeling that I’d attended a left-wing, justice-fired prayer meeting and been cleansed by the power of good vibes. This was gentle persuasion by music rather than words, but it was a reassuring and awakening in equal measure.

A more fervent vibe infused Struggle With Glory, in which Harry James Angus (Cat Empire) on trumpet and vocals managed the unlikely marriage of Greco-Roman myths with old-time jazz and gospel vibes. It worked, partly because he took the time to engagingly explain the stories and partly because his band delivered with feeling.

In eight pieces from the album released in March, this band — Ben Gillespie on trombone, Monique Di Mattina on piano, Freyja Hooper on drums, Tamara Murphy on bass and Lachlan Mitchell on guitar — wowed the audience with their musicianship and vocal harmonies. And HJA’s excellent whistling. Again this was a feel-good gig that will hopefully encourage more people to come out for live music.

Two other MIJF concerts filled with energy, exemplary musicianship and toe-tapping beats featured Daniel Susnjar’s new Afro-Peruvian Jazz Group (The Jazzlab, 9.30pm Monday 4 June) and Steve Sedergreen’s Points in Time (The Jazzlab, 9.30pm Wednesday 6 June). For me, these concerts came immediately after the two Tony Malaby gigs mentioned, so it wasn’t easy to adjust, but in each case audience approval was clear.

It’s part of a festival’s job to entertain, but also to challenge. One of the experimental concerts this year, as is always the case, came with the PBS Young Elder of Jazz commission concert on at 9.30pm on Friday 1 June at The Jazzlab by pianist Brenton Foster, entitled Love, As We Know It.

Foster — in a quartet with Gideon Brazil (flute, clarinet, saxophone), Stephen Magnusson (guitar), Jordan Tarento (bass) and Aaron McCullough (drums) — composed music to accompany sung adaptations of poems by Christopher Pointdexter (known for delivering his words via typewriter on Instagram). This was difficult music played very well indeed, but it was a tough task to communicate the compressed ideas in the poetry in a way that would permit an audience to grasp their full import. Yet Foster’s compositions had unexpected strength and drama obviously meant to pick up on the torments and dramas of lives and loves.

I believe this concert would have benefited greatly from a visual display of the poet’s text in some way while the words were sung and accompanying music played.

An even greater challenge came on Friday 8 June at The Substation in Three Solos performed sequentially by Tony Buck (The Necks), Peter Knight (Australian Art Orchestra artistic director) and experimental Norwegian guitarist Kim Myhr. After many evenings of performances by musicians under lights handing us their music on a platter, so to speak, it was hard to be left in the dark, literally, amid the amplified crackles, tiny tinklings, abrasive static, plinks and plonks created by the black “bee-suited” figure with wind-chime hat who sat facing away from the audience. Buck must have intended us to listen attentively rather than watch to see how he created these sounds — something most of us were not attuned to doing.

Minutiae also was surely the intent of Knight’s delicate explorations of sound generated with water in his trumpet and the recording and amplification — with the help of a Revox B77 reel-to-reel tape machine and other devices — of grains of rice falling. When the audience later turned full circle to hear Myhr on 12-string guitar, his instrument hidden behind a table of electronic equipment, the subtlety of variations as he strummed and adjusted settings may well have escaped all but the most diligent listeners.

These three solos were challenging not merely because they took us out of our comfort zones, but because of the risk that we would find too little in each to provoke a response, whether love or hate. That said, a lot of work goes into these performances and the artistic endeavour deserves to be acknowledged — perhaps in this case more as art than music.

On the following evening, the Australian Art Orchestra performed the world premiere of an orchestral work by Myhr. The ensemble comprised Myhr (guitar), Knight (trumpet, electronics, hammered dulcimer), Buck (drums, percussion), Aviva Endean (bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, zither), Lizzy Welsh (violin), Erkki Veltheim (viola), Jacques Emery (contra bass, zither), Joe Talia (Revox B77 reel-to-reel tape machine, electronics) and Jem Savage (live sound, associate producer).

This was truly a work for ensemble as collective. Over three parts of 16, 21 and 17 minutes respectively, all contributed to creating a multi-layered and highly finessed whole that enveloped and drifted above us in the large space.

The first part employed the strings in a slow, regular configuration that evolved into wave formations conjuring, for me, phosphorescent ocean swells in moonlight. The second had more structure, movement and change, building intensity in its complexity. The third part contrasted fast, light and intricate work at the drum kit with waves of vibrato shimmer while moving gradually to a long denouement. This was carefully crafted and intricately executed music that caressed rather than challenged.

I did not get to many of the festival concerts, including those at larger venues. But the 12 gigs I did attend were enough to demonstrate there are many ways to present and appreciate this music we loosely call jazz. But the excitement of live music is deeply sustaining.

I attended two of the jam sessions hosted by The Rookies and had a great time at each, bailing out only after 2am. These gatherings of musicians and fans also provide much enjoyment and lasting sustenance for the soul.

ROGER MITCHELL

Note: Images will be added to this post in due course.