Tag Archives: Aaron Choulai


Joseph O'Connor

Joseph O’Connor

REVIEW: Joseph O’Connor Trio / McDougall-Noy-Murphy, Chapel Off Chapel, Thursday 22 May, 8pm for Stonnington Jazz

As Sun Ra may have put it, space is the place, and both sets at the Chapel had plenty of that highly prized attribute in improvised music — space. OK, so in space no one can hear you scream, but when you listen to music that is open and airy, there may be room to dream.

James Macauley

James McLean

It was evident throughout the Joseph O’Connor trio’s set. There was an acceptance of space in Sotto Vocce in the way the three instruments — O’Connor on piano, Marty Holoubek on bass and James McLean on drums — acted cooperatively yet independently, intervening and then withdrawing as the piece developed. McLean’s sparse work on the drum kit had plenty of it.

Marty Holoubek

Marty Holoubek

In the standard Solitude, Holoubek’s bass was open, airy, relaxed and unhurried, with room to move. And the ballad Fractured Symmetry had notes splaying and spilling everywhere, with fragments, short runs and again that welcome space.

Originally from Brisbane, pianist Joseph O’Connor is completing a PhD course at Monash University. He won first prize in the National Jazz Awards at Wangaratta Jazz last year.

This outing demonstrated his delicacy of touch, expression (in Paul Bley’s Carla), his ability to enter a piece so lightly and convey just the right feel (in Ellington’s Solitude) and his gentle swing (in Noy’s Lady Lachs Schinken). Possibly it may have been good for O’Connor also to play some pieces allowing stronger, more emphatic work at the keys, with greater drive and dynamic variation. In other words, a taste of O’Connor let off the leash and a little more out there would have been nice. I’m sure we’ll see plenty of that in concerts to come.

That said, this was definitely a set of therapeutic or healing music that was good for the soul. It confirmed that the judges at Wangaratta chose well from a highly talented group of finalists in the National Jazz Awards.

And speaking of therapeutic music with plenty of space, the second set delivered more of both.

One of the greats (and great guys) of Australian jazz, Stonnington Jazz patron and drummer-bandleader Allan Browne, was unable to make this gig for health reasons. We wish him a quick return to the stage. Rory McDougall, who plays with Aaron Choulai, Sam Zerna and The Putbacks, stepped in.

According to bassist Tamara Murphy, pianist Andrea Keller had been in the line-up, but was away touring, so saxophonist Phil Noy stepped in. This trio began and ended the set with Bernie McGann — the recently departed saxophonist’s Brownsville to start and Murphy’s moving tribute Bernie to close. McDougall’s solo in this was assured and he engaged in some nice exchanges with Noy, who opened with a solo full of subtleties. Murphy’s playing is always interesting in the best sense — imaginative and never predictable.

Phil Noy

Phil Noy

In a beautifully controlled solo in The Opposite of Afar, Noy reached some distinctive high notes that I find it hard to describe, but they a had a special quality, being penetrating yet not at all forced.

Tamara Murphy

Tamara Murphy

Murphy’s solo in this seemed considered, deliberate and crafted with a lot of care — I’m not sure whether that will mean anything because I appreciate that much of what musicians perform ought to fit that description. But in this case that aspect seemed particularly evident.

During The Two Bears (Noy) I reflected that Noy was delivering a soft, yet full sound on reeds that was often floating as if on a cushion of air. There were no squawks and no sharp edges. His solo in Stablemates (Benny Golson) had just the right amount of swing. Great piece. Hoo Hoo, a ballad Noy wrote in Tasmania, had some more of those intriguing  higher notes plus a tiny vibrato, and Murphy produced a slow solo with enough space to let the light of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem lyric get in.

Rory McDougall

Rory McDougall

Maybe the Allan Browne vibe hung around for this concert despite his absence because this trio worked really well. McDougall’s brief solo in Staples (Noy) was great, and during the closing Bernie I was musing on the way in which the timbres of all three instruments were on out there to be enjoyed.

Space is indeed the place and there was plenty in the Chapel on this occasion.



Shannon Barnett

Shannon Barnett at WPAC Hall at Wangaratta Jazz and Blues Festival 2013.

In a rare change to the MJC’s advertised program, New York-based trombonist Shannon Barnett will play at Bennetts Lane Jazz Club tonight with guitarist Steve Magnusson (first set) and in a quartet playing compositions from her album Country.

Scott Tinkler‘s scheduled performance with Magnusson and Erkki Veltheim has been postponed due to doctor’s orders (nothing major, fortunately).

In the other room at Bennetts, students from the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University will give their final recitals from 6.30pm.

On Sunday, November 17th, the co-operative has another change to its printed program, with the double bill of Luke Howard Trio / Nat Bartsch Trio moving to November 26 (courtesy of the gracious Sam Keevers Trio moving to 2014) so that Aaron Choulai can play before his return to Japan.

Shannon Barnett

Shannon Barnett at Wang 2013

The new program notes, supplied by Martin Jackson, are as follows:

Steve Magnusson

Steve Magnusson plays Wangaratta Jazz 2013


Recipient of the 2007 Young Australian Jazz Artist of the year at the Australian Bell Awards, trombonist and composer Shannon Barnett returned to Australia for performances at the Wangaratta Festival and Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival before heading back to New York City where she is studying for her master’s degree. Since moving to New York she has studied composition with John Abercrombie, trombone with John Fedchock and has performed with the likes of Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, the Birdland Big Band, Cyrille Aimée and the Jon Faddis Jazz Orchestra of New York.
In an opening set, Barnett will perform in an exploratory duo with Stephen Magnusson (guitar). The second set will see her perform originals from her debut album, Country, with Nash Lee (guitar), Chris Hale (bass), and Chris Port (Drums).

Sunday, November 17, 8.30pm: AARON CHOULAI QUINTET (Tokyo/Melbourne) – Premiere

At the age of 31, award winning and critically acclaimed pianist/composer Aaron Choulai has already achieved a impressive amount in his career. From small band jazz recordings in New York for Sunnyside records to large scale multi-media cross-cultural festival commissions, the pianist’s work is as wide and varied as it is explorative and adventurous. As a side man, Choulai has worked as musical director and arranger for Kate Ceberano, the Melbourne Festival commission ‘Black Arm Band’ and has performed with a wide variety of musicians from Ben Monder and Clarence Penn in the U.S. to the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra and Archie Roach. As a band leader and composer, Choulai’s most celebrated work is a collaboration between Melbourne based outfit ‘VADA’ and a choir from his home town in Papua New Guinea, which was commissioned by the Queensland music festival in 2007.
Based in Japan at the Tokyo College of the Arts as a composer and a researcher since late 2008, on this brief visit to Melbourne, Choulai will perform with long time friends and collaborators Carlo Barbaro (tenor saxophone), Jordan Murray (trombone), Tom Lee (bass), and Rory MacDougall (drums). The quintet will mainly play new material from Choulai, as well as one or two jazz standards.
“In essence, Choulai is a meticulous technician via a richly lyrical, yet often animated type of delivery” – Glenn Astarita, JazzReview.com
“Aaron Choulai is writing is as alluring as it is adventurous and his feisty ensemble conjured fabulous melodies and propulsive grooves like rabbits out of a hat” – Jessica Nicholas, The Age

Tuesday, November 26, 8.30pm: LUKE HOWARD TRIO & NAT BARTSCH TRIO

Over the past few years, pianists Luke Howard and Nat Bartsch have both cultivated a distinctive piano trio sound; focusing on tonal, contemporary, ambient composition and improvisation. Their respective 2013 album releases A Dove, a Lion, a Coast, a Pirate, and To Sail, To Sing are both widely acclaimed. With shared musical values and mutual admiration, they are now teaming up to direct a new series of concerts entitled the Festival of Beautiful Sound. To mark the beginning of this new collaboration, Bartsch and Howard’s trios will perform each other’s compositions in a unique concert. Luke Howard Trio features Jonathan Zion (bass) and Daniel Farrugia (drums), while the Nat Bartsch Trio comprises Tom Lee (bass) and Daniel Farrugia (drums). See http://www.natbartsch.com & http://www.lukehoward.com.


Sara Serpa

Vocal instrumentalist: Sara Serpa

GIG: WPAC theatre, 8:30pm, October 30

Sara Serpa vocals/compositions, Andre Matos guitar, Aaron Choulai piano, Sugawa Takashi bass, Tanaka Noritaka drums

Takashi, Serpa, Matos

Congruity: Serpa in sync with Matos, and Takashi on bass.

I am not big on vocalists, though I am always open to being persuaded otherwise. My usual, possibly crass, explanation is that vocals can get in the way of the instruments. Sara Serpa was ideal for my education, because she does not regard herself as a singer with a backing band, but as another instrumentalist. The reservation I had after hearing Serpa in this outing was that her vocal range did not seem to especially extensive and that in using her voice as an instrument she seemed to too closely follow the guitar playing of her husband, Andre Matos. No doubt Serpa was improvising, but her compositions seemed to call for a fair bit of congruity between her voice and that of Matos’s strings, so that I wished after a while that she would be more adventurous.

Sara Serpa

Improvising: Sara Serpa

In terms of my education on vocalists, this festival had great potential. I was later to hear two Kurt Elling concerts (the vocalist as showman) and on Cup eve I heard Kristin Berardi in a sensitive duo with James Sherlock. I was unable to hear Sarah McKenzie on Sunday with her sextet at the Pinsent Hotel. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that Elling’s vocal antics were spectacular, though I did wish for less of the zany humour and more songs to celebrate the agility and range, and just the pure sound, of his voice. And Berardi’s delightful outing had much more of the voice as superb instrument that I had hoped Serpa would deliver.

Sara Serpa

Capturing the giants: Sara Serpa with Sugawa Takashi

Serpa, from Portugal but now living in New York, opened with Ten Long Days of Rain, written in Boston. Then followed Sequoia Gigantes, inspired by a description of the giant redwood trees in John Steinbeck’s novel Travels with Charley. Serpa introduced the song eloquently as an attempt to capture “the essence of being around these trees — peaceful and yet intimidating”, then quoted a few lines from the book. This was one of Serpa’s pieces that I felt really captured the feeling well.

Sara Serpa

Conveying anguish: Sara Serpa

Her next composition, Praia, she said loosely translated as “beach”. Serpa seemed to sing partly in Portuguese and part vocalese. This was followed by a fado — a traditional Portuguese form Serpa said dealt with the challenges of longing for and loving someone who does not love you — entitled S’em Razao (Without A Reason). Her voice certainly conveyed anguish.

Andre Matos

In a chord with Serpa: Andre Matos

Matos alone accompanied the vocalist for Acerta Passo, by Pixinguinha, which was roughly translated as “catch up”. In this Serpa’s voice seemed tiny and fragile as she attained notes in a higher register. Then she sang Julia, from the Beatles White Album. This was sung in English, her voice blaring out at higher volumes in parts. I did not think this treatment of the song worked all that well.

The set finished with Gold-Digging Ants, which was part vocalese, part doo-wop.

Choulai, Serpa, Takashi

Incongruity of attire: Choulai, Serpa, Takashi

All I could think of at the end was the incongruity of Aaron Choulai in his American football top (or baseball?) at the piano and the comparatively formal attire of the singer. But that also applied to Choulai’s other concerts with the Japanese musicians. Of course it is immaterial.


Sugawa Takashi

Matos was suitably empathetic throughout and Choulai, Takashi and Noritaka were attentive and careful not to take any of the limelight.

Tanaka Noritaka

Tanaka Noritaka

I suppose I was a little disappointed in Serpa’s concert, given the excited reviews I’d read. She seems to prefer to avoid vocal gymnastics. Perhaps she could be a little more adventurous in her improvisation using her chosen instrument.