Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues 2016
There is a political dimension to the performance of live music that often goes unmentioned. Yet it was present at this year’s Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues, whether in frequent black-humoured mentions of “lifestyle choices” (the products of which apparently we were hearing onstage) or in passing comments that did not reflect well on Attorney-General and former arts minister George Brandis, who is widely blamed for funding cuts to the arts.
It was also obvious in the program, which featured fewer international artists, and in what appeared from observation to be fewer bums on seats — both a result of this renowned and much-loved music festival having to significantly tighten the purse strings. Let’s hope — and work towards — that situation improving in the years to come. This annual gathering of jazz and blues musicians has a proud history.
It was apposite, in this context, that multi-instrumentalist Adam Simmons included, in a set by the trio Origami in St Patrick’s Hall, three pieces from The Usefulness of Art, an album inspired by Rodin that reflects on what artistic experience and participation can offer society — acceptance, empathy, generosity, compassion and faith — “at a time when fear governs politics rather than vision and principles, at a time when we cannot offer our hand to those in need, at a time when support for music education is diminishing”.
Mind you, those wise sentiments come from a musician who plays in his socks, which are often red.
And these layabouts who have chosen to fiddle with their instruments on stage rather than doing a real job are almost certainly commos. For instance, flamboyant pianist Barney McAll tore up a picture of Donald Trump live on stage in the Wangaratta Performing Arts Centre Theatre during a performance by his band ASIO (Australian Symbiotic Improvisers Orbit).
And the program devised by the festival’s prominent and no doubt left-wing artistic director (or creative director as he is known this year) Adrian Jackson is clearly leading a gender-based assault on the world of jazz, displaying as the line-up did “the strength and diversity of female jazz and blues artists, whether as vocalists, instrumentalists, bandleaders and composers”.
But I digress. Wasn’t this review supposed to be about music?
There is no single feature that makes any session of live music work for an audience, and no audience that is entirely of one mind. Yet many times an audience will feel and go with the vibe, delighting in whatever works collectively — be it virtuosic playing, full-on hard bop, intricacy and subtlety, or various forms of complexity. That is hardly an exhaustive list.
On Friday night Paul Grabowsky and Monash Art Ensemble joined Daniel and David Wilfred from Arnhem Land in a performance of Nyilipidgi that some found challenging. It was not my first experience of this work, which probably helped, and I thought it allowed two musical traditions — modern jazz and Indigenous ceremony — to cohere powerfully and emotively. The Wilfred brothers were expressive in their movements, although they did not dance as in a previous performance I’d seen.
The Long Way Around, Ronan Guilfoyle’s trio from Ireland, displayed understanding as well as propulsion and intensity in what was a fairly restrained outing.
And to close the evening, award-winning Chilean expatriate saxophonist Melissa Aldana formed Crash Trio with countryman Pablo Menares on bass and Colin Stranahan (US) on drums in a concert that never seemed to move or excite. Aldana displayed fluidity and technical expertise, but on this occasion lacked that indefinable ability to make us captives to her talent.
I made it to a dozen concerts on Saturday, but for too many of those I did not hear all of each gig because of overlapping concerts. Pianist Andrea Keller — whose contributions to this festival were a highlight — joined Eugene Ball on trumpet and Tamara Murphy on bass for Transients IV, one of Keller’s trios inspired by and in memory of the late Allan Browne. There was so much magnetism and space in the originals they played that I did not want to leave.
It was also a treat to hear expatriate trombonist Shannon Barnett and her fellow band member from Germany Stefan Karl Schmid on saxophone perform with Monash University Big Band, assuredly demonstrating under the direction of Jordan Murray that there are many young, talented “lifestyle choice” enthusiasts out there.
It often doesn’t work to hear half a concert, but festival programs make that hard to avoid. In Holy Trinity Cathedral at noon on Saturday, however, Luke Howard on piano along with Jonathan Zion on bass and Danny Farrugia on drums were superb advocates for their album The Electric Night Descends. This intricate, layered and beautiful music swelled and receded in the lofty space, its mesmeric quality staying with me long afterwards, despite my early departure from the set.
This uplifting mood was built upon in Celebrating Bernie McGann, Sandy Evans on tenor sax and Andrew Robson on alto joining Warwick Alder on trumpet, Brendan Clarke on bass and Andrew Dickeson on drums in a tribute to the inspirational musician who died in 2013. Evans said some of McGann’s compositions were “the best of all time” before the quartet performed her commissioned four-part suite, Loose, Long, Taste, Groove. We heard sprightly and sharp trumpet, a marvellous maelstrom of sound, twanging resonance and splendid horns mingling. Evans played with heart, soul, presence, spirit, feeling — call it what you will — and Robson sent alto notes darting as he ducked and weaved behind the music stand. It was indeed a celebration.
At 2.30pm the Luke Howard Trio members emerged from their telephone box clad in the colours of saxophonist Anton Delecca’s quartet and the transformation worked. I heard only the first half, but the versatility of these players exemplified the fact that they don’t get to take on a lifestyle choice without hard work. And it pays … well, not in big bucks maybe, but in the music that emerges.
Pianist Tal Cohen was unable to return from the US for a duet performance with saxophonist Jamie Oehlers, but Paul Grabowsky stepped into the breach. These two know each other so well. During their exquisite rendition of Armistice I vividly recalled the soft pastel hues of Afghan sunsets, and Oehlers’ work in The Dreaming was air-filled subtlety as the duo explored simple patterns. But the high point of this outing for me was a fully improvised piece that recalled their engrossing Lost and Found album. It’s a wonderful device to go unscripted — a tiny element of suspense demands our attention as we wonder where will they take the piece, who’s changing the mood or tempo or dynamics, and how will they know when to end it.
Jazz critic for a Murdoch publication John McBeath has described the Joseph O’Connor Trio as “an important new Australian talent” and he’s not wrong. O’Connor says the trio’s first album Praxis is inspired by his “study of dissonant counterpoint” and “combine a spacious, non-tonal harmonic palette with an intricate rhythmic sensibility”. I’d express it more simply by saying that it is not necessary to understand fully the complexity or intricacy of the structures this band explores to find it absorbing and engrossing. It really is worth an attentive listen and deeply satisfying.
The evening session on Saturday brought two festival highlights, the first being Ronan Guilfoyle’s eight-part suite A Shy-Going Boy, which set out to explore duality, complexity and ambiguity in the life of his grandfather, Joseph Guilfoyle, who was a volunteer in the 1916 Rising in Ireland. Voice recordings were a powerful adjunct to this carefully crafted set of pieces that, for instance, changed from jaunty and bright to sombre lament within A Dog With Two Tails. Ronan was joined by son Chris on guitar, Matt Jacobson on drums and Australians Scott Tinkler on trumpet, Jamie Oehlers on sax and Andrea Keller on piano. It was a challenging and sobering work of a similar ilk to Lloyd Swanton’s Ambon, but not on the same scale.
The audience in St Pat’s Hall at 9.15pm heard Shannon Barnett in her element, joined by her German group of Stefan Karl Schmid, David Helm on bass and Fabian Arends on drums, playing her compositions. This was a special outing for Barnett’s many fans and a musical treat, full of warmth and depth in the air-cushioned horns that seem to call for the epithet “resplendent” as they flow upwards and outwards from the stage. I loved the timbres and the finesse and restraint of the drums, as well as the traditional jazz feel of Hope Solo. Barnett’s characteristic humour showed through. An error in the festival app led me to miss this quartet’s second outing next day, which was a great pity.
The Wangaratta debut by bassist Tamara Murphy’s Spirograph Studies took quite a different approach that eschewed solos in favour of a group ethos as band members took a more textural and developmental approach to each piece. I did not catch the whole performance, but found it hard to resist the desire for more variation or more movement towards a destination. This is a group to watch.
Before a visit to the Blues Marquee to hear Geoff Achison I heard the opening piece of Melissa Aldana’s Crash Trio. It was New Points and Aldana continued to deliver fluidity in her long solos, but seemed to have stepped up the level of intensity compared with her previous night’s outing.
The last thing you need on a Sunday morning is Confrontations, but that’s what Joseph O’Connor’s trio with Scott Tinkler on trumpet delivered in spades. This five-piece suite was written as his PBS Young Elder of Jazz commission. It was utterly compelling in WPAC Hall, but not at all as I had imagined or as the title suggested. It’s not my place to infringe on an artist’s naming rights, but surely interactions, intersections, juxtaposings or congruities may have fitted just as well. There were deep raspings and higher register explorations from Tinkler, and fragmented, percussive piano onslaughts from O’Connor. But there were exquisite eddies and currents in there too, along with quite beautiful and gentle interventions as paths criss-crossed and patterns formed and dissolved. The tension-filled Blocks ended a great outing.
Ronan Guilfoyle is not only an accomplished composer for diverse ensembles and bass guitarist, he is evidently well versed in a wide range of musical traditions. When his trio performed in WPAC Hall the first three pieces drew on New Orleans funk, a reggae groove and North African gnawa rhythms. At times I found the drums too strong for intricate and well executed guitar work by Chris Guilfoyle, but the final piece I heard, Not Too Chabby, built to a stirring finale that was, well, you guessed it, not too shabby at all.
At 1pm in WPAC Theatre I caught the opening three pieces by a stirring sextet led by saxophonist Kellie Santin, who returned to Melbourne some time ago after 11 years in London. This was a swinging band that obviously enjoyed what they were doing — it is a lifestyle choice after all — and they were tight and lively. As they played Save Your Love For Me, Street Life and Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me, it was obvious that Santin had wooed and won quite a few audiences in her career and this outing was going to be polished and professional.
I left for something completely different. Adam Simmons on soprano sax and Nick Tsiavos on contrabass were playing Sixteen Allelulias at Holy Trinity. Indulge me here as I wax lyrical, albeit perhaps not as much as this duo.
As I listened to this constantly liminal exchange between two artists of sound, I remarked on their understanding, their exquisite timing, the deliberateness of their interventions and the contrast in their instrumentation — deeply resonant bass, air-filled saxophone notes. Their periods of unison were broken by slight extensions or delays. The bass notes deepen, the sax holds back. They exchange a look, then Simmons bounces in, but never overplays. They are a study in empathy and in listening (it is part of many lifestyle choices, after all). Sax notes seem to be exquisitely laid upon the bass notes, or poured on to them. The result is iridescent.
Past tense returns: It was almost big clash time, and crunch time. I wanted to hear Sandy Evans Trio with Bobby Singh on tabla, as well as Barney McAll’s ASIO. The resultant switch was jarring to say the least.
At 2.30pm in WPAC Hall Evans launched into an amazingly intense and rhythmically compelling solos over a drone, before Singh began on tablas. They played a Sri Lankan tune and then Robben Island from their album Kapture, a tribute to anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada who was imprisoned with Nelson Mandela for 26 years. I wanted to hear more. Much more.
But at 3pm I was next door ready — but utterly unprepared — for McAll’s ASIO. There were four men in Hi Vis vests ready to create chaos for their leader, but often seemingly wondering what he would require of them next. McAll held up signs with assorted instructions (“Make bird calls”?), tore up a picture of Donald Trump and talked wildly of parking tickets paid, needing milk and finding a 7-Eleven. He also distorted his voice in a most effective fashion via his synthesiser.
As usual with this creative performer, amid all this absolute and utter craziness there were sobering moments, as when he referred to a piece written about people “who appear to have everything, but don’t”. And McAll said judging the National Jazz Awards was “one of the hardest things I’ve had to do” — and we believed him.
Speaking of those awards, Adam Simmons mentioned just before the final judging that he had entered three times and had no success. So, as he said, there was hope for those who missed out.
The results were as follows: 1st Mike Rivett (Cairns), 2nd Troy Roberts (Perth) and 3rd Jeremy Rose (Sydney). Congratulations to those three and all who made the final 10 who performed in heats during the festival.
Anyone still reading at this point deserves a national jazz reader award. Sorry, no prizes.
At 7pm Melbourne Jazz Cooperative’s Martin Jackson introduced Andrea Keller’s Transients I, featuring Julien Wilson on tenor and bass clarinet, and Sam Anning on double bass. This began with Allan Browne’s Cyclosporin and ended with Hand Me Downs. In between we heard wonderful compositions by Keller and Anning. Keller’s tribute to the late John Taylor, a pianist and mentor, entitled Grateful, Hopeful, Joyful, was breathtakingly beautiful — Julien Wilson take a bow here. (But remember, there’s no money in it, because it’s a lifestyle choice.)
And I thought it would all be over after the 9pm outing by the Melbourne Women’s International Jazz Festival Quintet, which included Angela Davis’s moving Hymn For the Lonely and Keller’s tribute to John Taylor. Zoe Hauptmann on bass had met drummer Sonja Horbelt that morning. Surely this was a fitting way to end a festival in which many women musicians put their lifestyle choices on the line.
But it was not to be. The Morrison clan had other plans.
That’s James Morrison (on trumpet, trombone, piano and — at the Pinsent Hotel later on double bass), William Morrison on guitar and the amazingly speedy and dextrous Harry Morrison on bass. They gathered Troy Roberts (tenor), Carl Mackay (alto), Matt Jodrell (trumpet and piano), Patrick Danao (drums) and Olivia Chindamo (vocal gymnastics) in an all-out extravaganza that wowed an absolutely packed WPAC Theatre.
That’s a whole lot of people in that audience that went away with a smile on their faces because of lifestyle choices.
Down at the Pinsent Hotel were a few more of those layabouts on stage who had no real jobs. But what happens at the Pinsent stays at the Pinsent.
Note to self: Write something soon about the festival app that was far from accurate or complete. And add some images.