Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues 2015
MICHAEL Ondaatje, in his novel The Cat’s Table, paints a view of life in which “there is a story ahead of you, barely existing”. He says “only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feed it” so that “you find in this way the path of your life”.
It is a stretch, perhaps, to compare this view of life with coming to a jazz festival, yet there is always a sense of adventure, discovery and the lure of the unknown before this annual pilgrimage to Wangaratta for a weekend of music. What is the story ahead of us? To what will we attach ourselves so that we can feed our tales of the musical encounters ahead, building a narrative? In essence, what will we say to friends and colleagues back home about this festival?
A few preliminaries must be dealt with. This story does not cover the Blues Marquee. Much as I would have liked to hear Canned Heat at that venue, I did not find an opportunity.
Neither did I visit the new stage in the King George Gardens to hear jazz get “deconstructed, shaken up and unpacked”. The move to offer a less mainstream program at this venue did prompt some rusted on jazz fans to voice concerns about the festival losing its undoubtedly prestigious reputation as being serious about jazz.
But the stories I heard from those who did visit the garden stage were all positive — music that appealed to many, plenty of people and seats, interesting food and space for dancing. Heavy rain on Sunday forced some programming changes, I believe, but otherwise the move from Reid St stages to a ticketed venue may have been a success. If that provides revenue that can feed back to the jazz budget, it may be a positive.
Budget constraints were evident in the limited breadth of the international artist component, so a financial boost would be welcome. But after the last notes of the final night’s jam session at the Pinsent Hotel died away — some fluidly fleeing from the trumpet of James Morrison — there had been plenty of meat on the jazz bone (or quinoa in the salad for those inclined).
And a final preliminary comment: The festival app was a hit and a real asset, especially to reviewers.
But let’s get it out there before delving further into any Ondaatje-style “story ahead” that may emerge from this festival: Sydney bassist Lloyd Swanton’s monumental work Ambon, performed too late on Saturday night in WPAC Theatre and lasting too long at almost two-and-a-half hours including a brief interval, towered over this weekend’s music.
However, to mention that an edit would help seems churlish in the face of a musical colossus so full of impact and affect, highlighting as it does in an intensely personal way the experiences of Swanton’s uncle Stuart as a prisoner of war on Ambon during World War II.
Twelve musicians and narration from Swanton invoked powerful and unforgettable images. Particularly in the second part, wails and strangled cries of assorted instruments conveyed to us with breathtaking, visceral, realism this world of suffering. Ambon will leave an indelible imprint on any who heard this performance.
But one concert is not a whole festival, so we need to pursue the elusive “story ahead” of Ondaatje’s theory. In practice — whether at a jazz festival or in life — we follow our noses and see what develops.
The festival could be described as a Dave Douglas club sandwich. The US trumpeter, bandleader and composer opened and closed the program and altogether featured in four concerts plus an onstage conversation.
On the WPAC Theatre stage on Friday evening his sure hand guided the Monash Art Ensemble through his suite Fabliaux, exploring medieval, bawdy tales via a series of transitions highlighting reeds, brass, percussion and strings. It was a texturally rich journey that I thought was even more impressive than when initially performed at Monash University in March 2014.
In two quintet outings Douglas was the energiser who kept pianist Matt Mitchell, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Rudy Royston pumped as they blasted us with often-remorseless onslaughts at full-throttle. Mitchell was superb and Royston exciting, yet I found more to enjoy when the group backed off, provided more dynamic variation and celebrated Douglas’s richer, more air-cushioned horn on hymn-like ballads.
The pick of Douglas’s concerts was a duo set with Australia’s Paul Grabowsky that drew on New England psalm tunes from The Sacred Harp. There were fierce exchanges (Ham Fist), but the whole concert had gravitas, offering solemnity as well as tension, wonderful interplay, rich tonality and masterful control of dynamics. This was a festival standout for me.
Grabowsky also featured in Fabliaux and with vocalist Virna Sanzone, saxophonist Mirko Guerrini and drummer Niko Schauble in The Italian Project, which I had heard performed in May 2014 at Chapel Off Chapel. Some may have found the traditional folk songs and works of Italian composers a little too infused with sweetness, but again deep empathy and warmth was evident between these musicians.
Linda Oh seemed to shine more outside Douglas’s quintet. Her quartet outing with Irabagon, Royston and guitarist James Muller produced some wonderfully warm solos and compositions that reflected a sensitive, intelligent musician. Undeniable highlights of this set were two movements from The Arrival Suite, inspired by the works of a graphic novel by Perth artist Shaun Tan (Folk Song was exquisite) and her piece Speech Impediment, inspired by Megan Washington’s Ted Talk on stuttering.
The latter composition was also part of an iridescent duo set with vocalist Gian Slater at Holy Trinity, where Oh’s bass seemed inseparable from the voiced notes Slater sent soaring and floating into the cathedral’s lofty heights.
Vocals were integral to two utterly different ensemble works. Kristin Berardi added her voice to another set of pieces drawn from words written in war, ably assisted by Sean Foran on piano and Rafael Karlen on sax. Hope In My Pocket seemed at times too gentle to convey the terrible losses and fears raised, especially as nuanced in Karlen’s luminous notes. Yet Berardi’s face conveyed the deep feelings exposed in these wartime letters.
Canadian soprano sax player and flautist Jane Bunnett, who led five young Cuban musicians in two concerts as Maqueque, the name translating as “the fiery spirit of a young woman”, took us in a completely different vocal direction. The award-winning ensemble took WPAC Theatre by storm on Friday night and understandably attracted lengthy queues the following night in St Patrick’s Hall.
Bunnett’s undoubted energy was upstaged by the enthusiasm and infectious joy of her ensemble members, who delighted with their collective sense of rhythm and captivated with beautiful harmonies. Dayme Arocena was billed as the standout vocalist, yet on Friday percussionist Magdelys Savigne demonstrated her admirable vocal skills, especially in the Bill Withers classic Ain’t No Sunshine.
Bunnett told the audience before Maqueque’s encore (Mamey Colorado) in WPAC Theatre “you have to dance or at least shake your booty”. I bet there were plenty of wiggling bums on seats.
US bassist David Friesen played two solo gigs in the cathedral as well as joining pianist Mike Nock for a duo set in WPAC Theatre. In each setting on Saturday these concerts gradually developed momentum. As a solo performer Friesen explored the playing of samples taken on the run to build layered pieces that were absorbing rather than exciting.
In the gig with Nock, with whom he had not played for 40 years, Friesen joined his friend and master of invention in again creating on the run — tentatively at first and then engaging in the way that such experienced improvisers can make seem so effortless.
Bass playing was naturally a big focus at this year’s festival because that instrument featured in the National Jazz Awards. So it was fitting that solos by Ben Waples (in pianist Jackson Harrison’s trio) and Steve Elphick (with Zac Hurren’s trio) were delivered so ably by experienced exponents of the bass arts (that may not sound so good, but it is).
Another bassist, Nick Haywood, can “play hard or be discreet” according to the program notes, and in TNT — with Tony Gould on piano and Ted Vining on drums — he chose the gentler approach. I did not hear all of TNT, but what I did catch was an exquisite experience.
The awards judges split hairs to decide between the three finalists, taking their time to return their verdict and award Sam Anning (back in Melbourne from New York) first prize followed by Alex Boneham (now living in LA) second and Tom Botting (expat Kiwi now in Sydney) third. Botting was undoubtedly the winner in comedic talent.
To put gender on the agenda as women’s jazz festivals are about to take place in Sydney and Melbourne, should all the judges have been male when there are women bassists in Australia and two of the top 10 finalists were women? (This point was put to me by a woman jazz fan with considerable expertise in governance.)
Sam Anning was performing in St Pat’s Hall when the news of his success filtered through. And not long after that he was looking a little bemused by the antics of Perth’s wildly exuberant drummer Daniel Susnjar in a septet playing Afro-Peruvian jazz as the festival neared its end. There was much spirited playing in this ensemble, but Grant Windsor has to be commended for providing much impetus from the piano.
And last, but by no means least, the search for a story to this year’s festival lands us at WPAC Theatre at 11am Sunday. On stage were two tenors, accompanied by Zac Hurren and Julien Wilson. Cameron Undy on bass and Danny Fischer on drums completed the band.
But the unseen player, in their thoughts and in our thoughts, was the late David Ades.
Hurren gave us that winning smile of welcome and then said, simply, “We’re going to play for Dave now.”
Play they did. It was a fitting tribute.
And it is a fitting place to end the “story ahead” that came to pass at the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues 2015.
1. The absence of Allan Browne was deeply felt this year.
2. Adrian Jackson again deserves much praise for his program.
3. Many gigs were not covered in this review. That does not mean they weren’t great.