REVIEW: Wangaratta Jazz 2014
Ausjazz samples 25 concerts in the 25th year of the Wangaratta Jazz & Blues Festival and finds many expectations fulfilled and many unexpected moments of magic
The 1948 film entitled The Naked City closed with the line, “There are eight million stories in the Naked City and this has been one of them.” Well, one story to come out of the Wangaratta Jazz and Blues Festival in its 25th year was about a young man, possibly a guitarist, who it is alleged was close to naked on stage at the Sunday night jam session in a local pub of some interest to jazz fans.
That’s one story, and there will be a lot more — if not quite eight million, at least as many as there were patrons at this long weekend feast of great music. Artistic director Adrian Jackson is not revealing that number yet, but the queues seemed long and most venues were well filled.
This review has to be just one of those stories — it is a personal account, after all — but each festival seems to offer up its own take on the concerts, hinting at a theme, riff or melody that can be picked up and taken somewhere in the way that improvising musicians are doing all the time.
My story this year is about expectations. It can be good to have them — they ensure interest and build excitement. If they are met, it makes us happy. If not, of course, we may be disappointed. We can be locked in by expectations and be less likely to adapt and go with the flow. Best of all, perhaps, is when we are unexpectedly pleased — that’s when serendipity strikes.
So, being a glass half full kind of guy (that’s not really true, but let’s run with it), let me start with the gigs that fulfilled, or surpassed, expectations. There were plenty.
On Friday night, New Zealander Roger Manins’ band Hip Flask (Manins on tenor, Stu Hunter organ, Adam Ponting piano, Brendan Clarke bass and Toby Hall drums) was a ripping set by top musicians who also had a lot of fun. From 9.42 Mayday (Mannins) through Revolution (Hunter), Droop Blues (Ponting) and beyond, they held the packed WPAC Hall audience in thrall, adding some fun to the mix when Manins took a brand new plastic recorder from its packaging on stage and began to play — with some success. I found it hard to leave as the band played a ballad, Manins’ tenor being so captivating.
On Saturday, a necessarily brief visit to hear trumpet maestro Scott Tinkler’s Drub, with Carl Dewhurst guitar and Simon Barker drums, was fierce balm for the soul and I revelled in it — as did the players. They blew away cobwebs and filled me with warmth.
Later, drummer Danny Fischer’s band from his New York days, Spoke, with his talented friends Andy Hunter on trombone, Justin Wood on saxophone/flute and Dan Loomis on bass, provided collegiate inventiveness, seamless transitions and a feast of timbres as well as humour and pieces that were carefully nurtured to the last note. This band was up against tough competition, so I caught two half gigs rather than one complete concert. Both outings, on the Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, confirmed their worth. Let’s hope Spoke returns soon.
On Sunday afternoon, Greening from Ear to Ear, featuring luminaries gathered by the inimitable James Greening, this time adding sousaphone to his trombone and pocket trumpet, had to be a festival highlight and it was. What a wonderful choice of musicians and instruments. With baritone sax, bass clarinet and accordion in the mix and texturally rich layers wafting gently over each other or gathering momentum and swing, this was thoughtful, intelligent jazz spiced with humour and a dash or two of serious reflection.
Pianist Sam Keevers paid tribute to the late Bernie McGann in a quintet that lived up to all expectations. They played Sweet Lucy, Mail and Second Wind before I had to leave, reluctantly, but Bernie would have surely been happy with the result.
Who says jazz can’t rock? My high hopes of Steve Magnusson’s new band Kinfolk were based on the line-up and instrumentation. These guys did not disappoint, their foray into rock-infused material featuring a Hammond organ and the compositions having a bit of an edge.
And in Holy Trinity Cathedral immediately after that, master of many instruments Adam Simmons joined esteemed pianist Tony Gould on an adventure that prompted a fan beside me to ask, “Is this a highlight of the festival? It’s perfect. Top.” Whether whisper-quiet on shakuhachi or going wild on tenor sax, Simmons seemed to have music dancing within him, welling up and spilling out. Gould seemed like an anchor, a haven of peace and reassurance.
Finally, in outings that fulfilled or exceeded expectations, visiting Italian trumpet maestro Enrico Rava reunited with drummer Niko Schauble’s band Papa Carlo in a breathtaking rendition — and exploration beyond — Sleep My Child, a track from their album Night Music of 1994. It called to my mind Keats’s immortal line on the nightingale’s song, “Now more than ever seems it rich to die, to cease upon the midnight with no pain…” It’s not that I particularly wanted to go just yet, but in the serene phosphorescence or staccato rumblings or guttural grumblings or occasionally soaring horn notes of this superbly layered and at times eerie improvisation, it seemed the world was transcended.
Rava, with three concerts, was the international headline artist. I thought that in his enjoyable Friday evening gig the standout performers were the Monash University contingent. I liked the way the format allowed them to shine in small groups, with Rava as a gracious host who listened attentively and did not try to grab the limelight. Monash is known for joining students with their teachers in ensembles and it works. But credits for some excellent solos extended beyond mentors Paul Grabowsky, Rob Burke, Jordan Murray, Stephen Magnusson and Mirko Guerrini, with entrancing work at the piano by Joel Trigg and on tenor sax by Paul Cornelius.
On Saturday Rava could not have asked for a better band than Grabowsky, Guerrini, Schauble and bassist Frank Di Sario. It was a little disappointing that Rava chose a set of standards, but we began to see his facility with the instrument, especially the sudden variations in volume, his love of brief, explosive interventions and at times a Tomasz Stanko-like air cushion. There were sparks and spears from the horn, but not sustained tension. As was evident in Rava’s talk with Miriam Zolin during the National Jazz Awards judging, he is a warm and engaging fellow, and that fits with his music.
But what of the other major international drawcard, judged by some to be the “world’s best drummer” Jeff “Tain” Watts? Surely he and his high-powered quartet, featuring expatriate Australian Troy Roberts on tenor saxophone, Osmany Paredes on piano and Chris Smith on bass, exceeded expectations. Well, yes and no. Watts seemed a different player in the festival’s closing concert on Sunday night than on the previous night, when he seemed distant and uninvolved, leaving the amazingly talented Roberts and virtuosic Paredes to take the honours.
In closing the festival, Watts certainly lived up to his reputation as an extraordinary practitioner of the complex mathematics involved in virtuosic, rapid-fire drumming that can set hearts pumping and bring patrons to their feet. As expected, the packed WPAC Theatre crowd loved it and most fans’ expectations would have been well met. But Watts’ drumming is more about speed, flourish and dexterity, and the quartet — with the exception of the undeniably beautiful ballad Reverie in both sets — runs mostly at full throttle. In Watts’ drumming there is often little or no space and not a lot of apparent variation, at least to the uninitiated in the finer points of the art.
The other Watts contribution to this festival came on Saturday afternoon when Tain’s wife Laura brought her pocket trumpet to a quartet with her husband, Smith, Roberts and guests Zac Hurren on tenor and her old friend James Sherlock on guitar. They played pieces from Laura’s suite Elicit Inquest, inspired by Ellington’s book Music Is My Mistress. This was a cool rather than an overly engaging set, with any real fire coming from Roberts and Hurren.
Among home-grown gigs that did not quite live up to expectations, the Australian Art Orchestra’s second airing of Struttin’ With Some Barbecue suffered somewhat from its billing as a contemporary response to the music and life of Louis Armstrong, using his letters as a way into the story of his life. The suite composed and arranged by Eugene Ball did not quite succeed in providing that, in part because the words delivered so spectacularly by pop vocalist Ngaire were not entirely clear and the visual component was highly abstract.
Without that expectation I would have been much happier, because this was inventive in its instrumentation and took us on an at times fascinating journey with many spectacular sights and sounds. In the end I freely admit I did not fully grasp all there was to see and hear, and found the work sporadically engaging rather than cohesive.
Mike Nock always comes with incredibly high expectations and his Trio Plus definitely ended on a high with the lively, energetic composition The Dude Abides. But earlier the band seemed to favour the solo-follows-solo model rather than ensemble work with more interaction. Nock, as always, was compelling on piano and Brett Hirst was strong on bass, but there seemed to be a little too much sameness in some solos and not quite enough to hold our interest. Guest musicians Karl Laskowsky on tenor and National Jazz Awards winner this year Carl Morgan on guitar certainly did not lack skill or technique, but perhaps inventiveness. That said, Nock could well be dubbed The Dude, and he abides.
Without mentioning all of the 25 concerts I attended, there are some for which I had no expectations in particular, but which delivered serendipitous moments in spades.
These included expatriate Australian Lisa Parrott’s reunion on Saturday with mates Carl Dewhurst on guitar, Cameron Undy on bass and Simon Barker on drums. There are already way too many words in this review, but this band’s rendition of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman was spectacular, brim full of interest, texture and timbre. The rapport among these players was evident throughout this standout set.
On a whim I ducked into Holy Trinity Cathedral on Saturday to catch the unusual match of Tony Gould with Hoodangers trombonist Ben Gillespie. If only I had gone there earlier. While Gould played a Benjamin Britten arrangement of the folk song Down by the Salley Gardens, Gillespie sang the lyrics in falsetto. This was absolute magic. Then his trombone produced notes of burnished gold so soft and light that they floated off to melt away in the lofty cathedral vaults. Gould was glowing as he played and delighted in Gillespie’s vocal rendition of My Journey to the Sky, “dedicated to anyone who has lost someone recently”.
Earlier that day at the cathedral, Steve Grant treated us to early stride and ragtime pieces, among them that Scott Joplin classic Solace, which he played sublimely.
And on Sunday morning, Gillespie was joined by the Hoodangers crew in a set that included Eugene Ball’s composition Trumpet, which had a minor feel and featured a major solo (in its impact) by Phil Noy on alto sax. It was another set full of serendipitous delights and a great way to start the day.
And that’s a great point at which to halt this review of Wangaratta Jazz 2014. It’s just one story. Please send me yours.