Category Archives: STONNINGTON JAZZ 2011

SARAH McKENZIE SEXTET

Stonnington Jazz opening night at Malvern Town Hall, Thursday, May 19, 2011
Sarah McKenzie piano and vocals, Eamon McNelis trumpet, Carlo Barbaro saxophone, Hugh Stuckey guitar, Alex Boneham bass, Craig Simon drums
Guests: Julien Wilson saxophone, Phil Bernotto percussion

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

She’s vivacious, she’s engaging, she’s spirited and she can woo an audience as if she’s been doing it for years, but Sarah McKenzie is only 22. She was an ideal choice by artistic director Adrian Jackson to open Stonnington Jazz 2011 with two concerts at Malvern Town Hall, and I’m willing to bet guests at tables and in the balcony seats  loved this lively performance by McKenzie, her sextet and guests. It was also perfect timing for McKenzie, whose newly released album Don’t Tempt Me was selling steadily to queues of patrons during the break and after the concert.

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

McKenzie’s appeal is not hard to understand. As an advertisement for jazz, she is just what the doctor ordered. So what’s her appeal? Obviously she looks just a tad better than most jazz musicians who have been around the block a few times, so photographers are keen to snap images that could be used to boost the ratings of jazz. But this young artist’s attraction derives primarily, I believe, from the fact that she is — despite her youth — a born entertainer.

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

Her animated facial expressions and gestures, which are so ideal for the cameras, also appeal to the audience because they communicate McKenzie’s enthusiasm and sheer love for what she’s doing. It’s contagious. When she talks about how she discovered jazz or tells us that, at 16 when she wrote Love Me or Leave Me, she didn’t know it was a standard, we are caught up in her passion for the music. There is a frankness, an openness and honesty to McKenzie’s approach as a performer that is refreshing and appealing. But she also has a natural talent for working an audience that belies her years.

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

In this respect McKenzie is similar to her mentor, James Morrison, who has that ability to captivate an audience and impart his enthusiasm for whatever he’s playing and whoever he’s playing with. So, this opening night concert raises a broader issue: Is jazz or improvised music these days often less about entertainment and more about musicians pursuing their particular paths? Are audience numbers down because there is less of the “entertainment” aspect to performances? Well, to play devil’s advocate, I believe many hold the view that jazz would have more bums on seats with more artists like James Morrison, while that view would be anathema to musicians who believe in moving into exciting new territory regardless of audience appeal. It’s an interesting question.

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

So, now for a review of the concert. I loved the engagement with the audience and McKenzie’s infectious passion. She was clearly enjoying herself and that helped the audience to enjoy her performance. As well, she sang mostly standards or audience favourites, such as You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To, The Way You Look Tonight, Cry Me A River, I’ve Got the Blues Tonight, Summertime, Bye Bye Black Bird and, for an encore, (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66. For good measure, she added interpretations of Love Me Tender (which succeeded) and St James Infirmary (which was a too jaunty for this bleak song in my view). So she was not pushing any boundaries.

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

I wished a few things to be different. I would have liked to hear more original songs, such as McKenzie’s version of Love Me Or Leave Me. I would have liked her to try some much more adventurous material, some songs with the potential to go into more edgy territory.

Julien Wilson

Julien Wilson

Eamon McNelis and Carlo Barbaro

Eamon McNelis and Carlo Barbaro

Hugh Stuckey

Hugh Stuckey

And I would have loved to have heard members of the sextet, and the guests, being given more room to move and time to take some serious solos. McKenzie had a talented band — which she clearly recognised —  but we heard solos from Eamon McNelis, Hugh Stuckey, Carlo Barbaro and Julien Wilson that were so brief as to be frustrating. They whet our appetites and then stopped after a tiny entree.

Alex Boneham

Alex Boneham and (bottom left) Craig Simon

Finally, and this is a longer term wish for this young artist, I’d like to feel moved by her singing rather than enticed by her youthful exuberance. That is possibly unfair and a bit like asking her to suddenly become many years older and tap into the deeper feelings and angst that can come with life’s tough times. But it is also a fervent wish that Sarah McKenzie digs deep and stretches herself so that there are risks in her material and in the way she performs. In short, I would like to see McKenzie vying for a commission concert at Melbourne’s Jazz Fringe Festival in years to come.

For now, this young artist left plenty of happy punters filing out of Malvern Town Hall.

Sarah McKenzie

Hugh Stuckey and Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

Eamon McNelis with improvised mute

Eamon McNelis with improvised mute

ROGER MITCHELL

WYNTON MARSALIS SENDS HIS APOLOGIES

Ausjazz blog previews Stonnington Jazz 2011 — May 19 to May 29

The days are suddenly much colder and the nights have that stay-at-home chill. Many of us are suffering from sore throats, persistent coughs and similar energy-sapping afflictions. So what’s the incentive to venture out to hear live music? During the past few nights I’ve had some of the worst coughing bouts in years, so I sympathise with anyone wanting to hunker down at home. But there are some real spirit-lifting performances coming up at Stonnington Jazz (May 19 to 29) and that’s exactly what we need as winter sets in. So, why not decide to catch one or two of these gigs over the 10 days of this festival? Go on, (to use an expression doing the rounds at our house), you know you want to.

The full program is online at the Stonnington Jazz website, so this preview is merely picking out some highlights — essentially what Ausjazz blog fancies as the gigs not to miss.

One thing to keep in mind about Stonnington Jazz. This is all home-grown talent and there is plenty of it. International artists can be a thrill, but this festival’s strength is that these musicians are ours — inventive and able and with the freedom that comes from being so far from the big names in the United States.

 Sarah McKenzie Sextet
Sarah McKenzie at Stonnington Jazz 2010

The artists who are likely to feature in print media publicity for the festival are probably pianist and vocalist Sarah McKenzie, who will open the festival on Thursday and Friday nights (May 19 and 20) with her sextet; vocalist Katie Noonan, who will perform on May 22 with Elixir (Zac Hurren on sax and Stephen Magnusson on guitar); and Vince Jones & Band plus guests (May 21).

McKenzie is an engaging performer who delivers swinging standards and originals in a forthright and spirited manner that recognises the long history of jazz vocalists. She wowed crowds at Chapel Off Chapel during this festival last year and will return — this time at the Malvern Town Hall — with award-winning Eamon McNelis on trumpet (replacing Pat Thiele) and Alex Boneham on bass (replacing Sam Anning). Julien Wilson will be a special guest on sax. This venue will be larger and acoustically tougher, but McKenzie has the power to fill the hall. She will be launching her new album Don’t Tempt Me (ABC Jazz).

Allan Browne

Festival hopping: Allan Browne performs at Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival.

Ausjazz blog’s list of anticipated highlights begins with drummer and Stonnington Jazz Patron Allan Browne, who on May 22 at 2pm presents a program of musical portraits and poems inspired by some of the great jazz artists he has played with, including Johnny Griffin, Milt Jackson, Art Hodes, Wild Bill Davison, Emily Remler, Buddy Tate, Teddy Wilson, Mal Waldron and Jay McShann. Joining Allan will be members of his quintet — trumpeter Eugene Ball, saxophonist Phil Noy, guitarist Geoff Hughes, bassist Nick Haywood — and trio (Haywood and pianist Marc Hannaford). All those names may look like a laundry list, but Al Browne and his crew have been trying out this new material at some Bennetts Lane gigs on Mondays and, though I have not made it to these gigs, I am certain the result will be moving as well as lots of fun. Jazz and poetry may not always work, but the Browne Quintet suites The Drunken Boat and Une Saison En Enfer are evidence enough that these guys know what they’re doing.

Any opportunity to hear Sydney’s Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra is to be valued. You may be surprised at how a big band can do much more than merely blast away. Under the direction of saxophonist David Theak, JMO is a sensitive, expressive beast. And the finals of the National Big Band Composition Competition will add interest to this outing at Chapel Off Chapel at 7.30pm on Monday, May 23.

Anyone who heard Lost and Found at Wangaratta Jazz some years back, when Paul Grabowsky, Jamie Oehlers and Dave Beck played a standout set of unscripted improvisation, will value the chance to hear Grabowsky and Oehlers. Their 2010 album On A Clear Day explored their take on some standards. These two musicians will show the depth of their musical understanding in a Chapel Off Chapel double bill with Nat Bartsch Trio on May 24.

Stu Hunter

Sweet suite: Stu Hunter at Wangaratta

How suite it is that pianist / composer Stu Hunter‘s two magnificent suites — The Muse and The Gathering — will be played at Chapel Off Chapel on succeeding nights (May 25 and 26). The second work won Contemporary Jazz Album of the Year at the Bell Awards and Best Independent Jazz album in the Independent Music Awards in 2010. Both were huge hits at Wangaratta. I marginally prefer The Gathering, with the larger ensemble adding Phil Slater on trumpet and James Greening on trombone and pocket trumpet to quartet members Julien Wilson (on sax rather than Matt Keegan this time), Cameron Undy (instead of Jonathan Swartz on bass) and Simon Barker (drums).

But the deal is so good it’s hard to believe, because each gig has a substantial other half. Along with The Muse, tenor saxophonist Andy Sugg will fuel controversy over whether jazz stays tied to its apron strings or is let off the leash to explore (apologies for the mixed metaphors). Sugg, with help from Shannon Barnett on trombone, Natalia Mann on harp, Steve Magnusson on guitar, Kate Kelsey-Sugg on piano, Ben Robertson on bass and James McLean on drums, will endeavour to link John Coltrane‘s music with British punk, and use some technologically up-to-date devices to give Coltrane’s later music “radically new contexts”. I understand Wynton Marsalis has sent his apologies.

Scott Tinkler on fire at MJFF Big Arse Sunday 2011

Scott Tinkler on fire at MJFF Big Arse Sunday 2011

The other half of the The Gathering gig will feature four names to strike terror into their instruments and evoke frenzied adulation from their fans: Ian Chaplin, Scott Tinkler, Philip Rex and Simon Barker. On sax, trumpet, bass and drums respectively, these “daring and potent improvisers” (as the program notes put it) will be fathering children … no, sorry, creating a storm of fiery improvisation that will delight body and soul. (I know this because I heard Tinkler with bass and drums on the final night of Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival this year — he’s in great form.)

That this list of highlights is growing too long and in danger of leaving out little is testament to the quality of the programming by artistic director (and trophy-winning golfer) Adrian Jackson. So I’ll gloss over some gigs (Tina Harrod; Bloodlines: Dave Macrae, Joy Yates & Jade Macrae; Joe Chindamo Trio and guests) to mention three more.

Bassist Leigh Barker and The New Sheiks, flush with Jazz Bell Awards success (and cash), will keep things swinging at Chapel Off Chapel on Friday, May 27, giving patrons a chance to catch Eamon McNelis on trumpet. And sharing the stage for another set will be the collectively led Bopstretch, with McNelis, Rajiv Jayaweera (is there anywhere he’s not playing?) on drums, Ben Hauptmann on guitar and Mark Elton on bass. This band will play classic 1950s BeBop era material, with tunes from some famous names.

On the festival’s second Saturday, May 28, Chapel Off Chapel patrons will be treated to a top double bill. Paul Williamson (the saxophonist version) will add to his Hammond Combo guests Geoff Achison (blues fans will be there) on guitar and vocals, James Greening on trombone, Gil Askey on trumpet and vocals, and Bob Sedergreen on keyboards. Get ready for jazz with an R&B flavour. At the same gig, trombonist Shannon Barnett will perform with the quartet that released the album Country in 2010 and toured nationally after being awarded a contemporary music touring program grant.

James Greening

James Greening at Wangaratta in 2010

Finally, Ausjazz blog’s highlights list ends with a combination I would not miss for quids. On Sunday, May 29 at 2pm, in a quartet of revered musicians (Sandy Evans saxophones, James Greening trombone & pocket trumpet, Steve Elphick bass), saxophonist Andrew Robson will perform his arrangements of hymns by Thomas Tallis. And Greening, forming The World According to James with Elphick, Robson and Toby Hall on drums, will perform original compositions. What a way to finish a festival.

As these highlights demonstrate, there is a lot of class to this festival. Because the program revisits some bands and works aired previously either at Stonnington or Wangaratta, I was initially inclined to think there was less breaking of new ground than in past years. Perhaps so, but for anyone who has not had an opportunity to hear these musicians before, and for all those who have heard and want to listen again, Stonnington Jazz has a power of Australian music in store.

ROGER MITCHELL