2019 Melbourne International Jazz Festival – May 30 to June 9
“If music’s not intense, it’s not good.” That throwaway line by a wonderful Melbourne musician came as an instant response to my summation of the Vijay Iyer Trio’s outing at The Jazzlab on Sunday, June 2 as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival.
In the trio’s fourth outing at the festival, US pianist Iyer, with Stephan Crump on acoustic bass and Jeremy Dutton on drums delivered a mostly high octane performance that revelled in complex, recurring patterns and delivered propulsion plus. In long and powerful yet intricate pieces, all three trio members seemed to embody their music, tapping into a rhythmic sense deep within them and feeling it so strongly that it erupted out of them.
This outstanding concert was at times mesmeric, yet demanded concentration. Elements within the music were always changing as the trio members’ interplay built tension, held it and then relented, only to build again. As icing on the cake, late in the set Iyer invited two US musicians – rapper Kokayi and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire – to join in briefly before he urged the audience to “do everything we can to stop this tide of fascism” in the world and “keep fighting, keep listening”. The room was won over, without question.
Intensity surely is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for good music, but this year’s eclectic MIJF offered many potent and passion-evoking concerts that brought jazz lovers out of the woodwork, possibly prompting our ad guru Prime Minister Scott Morrison to have Lara ask the perennial question: Where the bloody hell are you (for the rest of the year)?
Small, crowded venues definitely help deliver intensity. But often it is down to who’s on stage and the sheer enormity of what they do there. On Tuesday, June 4, Miles Okazaki (USA) in The Jazzlab gave us a taste of his devotion to Thelonious Monk as exemplified in his six-volume album Work, recording 70 Monk compositions on solo guitar.
A better knowledge of Monk would have helped in appreciating subtle nuances, I’m sure, yet this was a truly virtuosic performance offering complexity, dynamic variation, space and swing. With only his foot tapping at times to keep the beat, Okazaki used his guitar as melody maker, rhythm driver and percussion instrument, playing almost continuously for an hour and 20 minutes without charts. Highlights were Crepescule with Nellie and the encore, a Monk arrangement of Tea for Two. The concentration, focus and memory required for this solo effort was amazing.
At this year’s festival, work commitments meant I missed significant Saturday concerts –Gershwin Reimagined, Linda May Han Oh’s Adventurine, the PBS Young Elder of Jazz commissioned work Displacement, Elio Villafranca, and Marginal Consort – many of these in larger venues.
But I did hear Herbie Hancock, Vinnie Colaiuta, James Genus and Lionel Loueke in the second of their two sold-out concerts at Hamer Hall, which seats almost 2500 people. This felt like a rock concert, albeit in a fairly sedate setting, and the massed fans came ready to express their adoration.
Yet I found this outing by four undoubtedly superb musicians to have an unremitting, electronically enhanced intensity that allowed for few subtleties and too few departures from full throttle. It seemed to me a little like a showcase for boys with their toys, but of course the packed auditorium loved it.
Colaiuta’s contribution didn’t need extra bells and whistles – his work at the drum kit seemed to have one speed (flat out) and one volume (loud). Hancock mostly played furiously, switching between piano and Korg Kronos keyboard (billed as “the most powerful synthesizer on the planet”) as he vied with Colaiuta to be heard. His vocals were distorted via an electronic processor which I concede did fit alongside the similarly altered vocals and synthesizer-style sounds (via a Digitech Whammy pedal?) from the accomplished Loueke in addition to some glottal clicks that reflected his West African roots.
On bass, Genus was classy and less cluttered, his few solos a standout. This outing was at its most entertaining towards the end, and when Hancock wowed the auditorium with his fancy keytar, leading the quartet to an encore, Chameleon, that brought his fans to their feet.
It’s an odd contrast to draw, perhaps, between Hancock and Billy Childs, who performed in the Melbourne Recital Centre on festival opening night, May 31. Hancock had nothing to prove and yet he seemed keen to prove he is still up with the latest.
Childs, who in bringing us many compositions from his album Rebirth – described by Vijay Iyer as “a reminder that Billy Childs can burn” – seemed to be signalling a return to the power and energy of more straight ahead, small group jazz, but nevertheless needed no high-tech gadgetry. This outing, featuring expatriate Australian Alex Boneham on bass, Christian Euman on drums and Dayna Stephens on saxophone, exemplified the huge appeal of a great rhythm section and varied, evocative compositions.
Childs did burn, but with a different kind of fire, his keyboard work in Horace Silver’s Peace including emphatic chords, muted strums of the piano strings and delicate, high trills. There was nothing dreamy about Starry Night, just exquisitely crisp clarity and forays into the abstract. Above all, this set was full of interest because there was so much variation.
As with Childs, the appeal of the Florian Hoefner Group concert on Tuesday, June 4 at The Jazzlab was not in relentless intensity. Its allure came in more nuanced and lyrical compositions, drawn mostly from the 2016 album Luminosity, along with the obvious enjoyment of interaction among reuniting musicians.
Canadian pianist Hoefner welcomed this opportunity to play again with drummer Peter Kroneif (an expatriate Austrian now in New York) and Australians bassist Sam Anning and tenor saxophonist Michael Rivett, all of whom he’d met outside their home countries a decade ago. Two standouts not from that album were Black is the Color, based on a Scottish folk song, and the energetic Newfound Jig.
The most exquisite concert of this festival for me would fail on an intensity meter. And it came a little unexpectedly.
Unable to get to the long improvisation by Marginal Consort (Japan) when that was rescheduled to a Saturday slot at The Substation, on Friday, June 7, I set out to hear Ross James Irwin’s 60 Years of Kind of Blue at 170 Russell Street before catching the second of two concerts at The Jazzlab.
As it turned out, the recasting of the Miles Davis classic came on stage later than I had anticipated, after the well received pizzazz and exuberance of Fem Belling (vocals, violin) and the band ZEDSIX at the former Billboard venue, so I had time to hear only three tracks off the Davis album as reinterpreted by Irwin’s superb 11-piece ensemble before leaving. It was enough to know that I want to hear this tribute concert again. Mat Jodrell on trumpet, Phil Noy on alto sax and Julien Wilson on tenor sax were sounding spectacular as I left this updated Kind of Blue.
At The Jazzlab, Petra Haden – daughter of much-loved US bassist the late Charlie Haden – was teamed with what turned out to be the perfect band of Australian musicians for her Songs From My Father. Haden’s musical heritage pours forth in her fluid, unfettered vocals – her voice so relaxed that it transmits this vibe to the audience in classics such as Shenandoah, The Fields of Athenry and the superb Jimmy Webb song The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress.
But what took this concert to another level was what Colin Hopkins (piano) Eugene Ball (trumpet), Nick Haywood (bass), James McLean (drums) and Stephen Magnusson (guitar) did to give the songs an edge, to add abrasive accents or sharp spears of sound that Haden may not have always expected but seemed to welcome. This superb, adventurous concert closed with Haden singing the David Bowie/Pat Metheny song This Is Not America, written for the film The Falcon and the Snowman, Haden poignantly delivering the enigmatic words that seemed so apt in these times: “A little piece of me will die because this is not America.”
Other concerts deserve mention, despite the length of this review.
Belgian pianist Jef Neve is a familiar face for jazz festival patrons, but his outing on Thursday, June 6 at The Jazzlab was more tempered than when, at the 2013 Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues, his virtuoso solo performance – at times thunderously stormy – brought a standing ovation. On this occasion, with Teus Nobel (Netherlands) on trumpet and flugelhorn, Neve showed restraint that suited this duo with Nobel, whose flugelhorn playing had an uncharacteristic edge for that mellow instrument.
After Neve and Nobel came a multi-cultural extravaganza directed ably by Michael Pigneguy from the drum kit, except when he lost the mic to powerful vocalist Alemay Fernandez, who demanded “Melbourne, make some noise” before telling the audience “That was pathetic”. This nine-piece ensemble (Australia/Malaysia/Singapore/USA) played for 10 minutes less than two hours, with fine work in solos from Pigneguy, Marques “Q Sound” Young on trombone, Craig Fermanis on guitar, Toby Bender buried behind the band on percussion and Lachlan Davidson in the dark on saxophone. Fernandez and Evelyn Feroza were appropriately forceful among the guys. The set may have gone on a little too long, but it was a big undertaking done really well. I particularly appreciated two Middle Eastern influenced compositions by Pigneguy – Street Dance and West Bank Moon.
I had to leave 170 Russell Street before the end of Ambrose Akinmusire’s challenging Origami Harvest – which brought us soundscapes created with the Silo String Quartet, rapper Kokayi and modern jazz, funk and soul to confront and explore important issues in society. It seemed a big shift from the album to bring in Kokayi rather than Kool A.D. (Das Racist), but the words spoken no doubt addressed related issues. I was told Akinmusire would have been happy to create and produce this work – an effort to tackle opposites in society – without necessarily playing in it, but the absolute highlight on the night for me was one spirited and spiritual solo from his trumpet, his notes soaring heavenwards and lingering in the air. In saying that, Origami Harvest was striving to focus on much more than such purity of sound. It was important that we heard it. That’s why this festival has Explorations in Jazz.
I heard other important explorations in jazz – the launch of a new album, Night Music, by Jamie Oehlers, Claire Cross’s work with Tomorrow is My Turn. I would like to have heard Bill Frisell.
And after the highly charged Herbie Hancock outing I saw out the festival in the deep red glow of Rafiq Bhatia (USA) on guitar, with Jack Hill on electric bass and Ian Chang on drums. They amped it up and we all basked in the glow and cried out for more.
Intensity? Yes, there was some, but it was warming us like coals rather than egging us into a frenzy.
Well done once again Melbourne International Jazz Festival. And well done The Rookies in the nightly jam sessions.
Note: This review has appeared so late because since the festival’s end I have been laid low by one of the worst colds (not flu) that I’ve ever had, with irrepressible coughing and nasty conjunctivitis.