Tag Archives: Eamon McNelis


The New Sheiks meet the Finer Cuts

The New Sheiks meet the Finer Cuts


Double bill — Leigh Barker and the New Sheiks with Geoff Bull and the Finer Cuts
Sydney: 505, 280 Cleveland Street, Surry Hills, Thursday, December 6 at 8.30pm, $20 ($15)
Melbourne: The Flying Saucer Club 4 St Georges Rd, Elsternwick, on December 16, 3pm until 6pm, $29 table bookings, $22 standing room bookings, $25 at the door

Ausjazz Blog puts some questions to two protagonists in the coming contest for hottest young band playing music that swings:

The traditional sparring between Sydney and Melbourne will play out in two gigs this month as two bands battle it out for honours in a contest to get audiences up dancing.

Melbourne’s Leigh Barker and the New Sheiks will play off against Sydney’s Geoff Bull and the Finer Cuts in friendly rivalry for honours in their renditions of Delta blues tunes, New Orleans classics or just about anything that swings.

The New Sheiks and Finer Cuts are young musicians who love delving into the lexicon of traditional jazz and delivering it with love, passion and often a new approach.

Music is not all that’s on offer. Patrons are invited to “dance your arse off” first at 505 in Sydney and 10 days later at The Flying Saucer Club in the Melbourne suburb of Elsternwick. The southern gig will include presentations by world champion swing dancer Ramona Staffeld, tap king Grant Swift and vintage jazz dancers The Uptown Strutters.

There will be separate sets, but New Sheiks band leader Barker says by the end of each concert both bands will be on stage together — sporting two basses, maybe two pianos, two trumpets, two trombones, a sax, guitar, fiddle and vocals — leaving the audiences to decide whether Sydney or Melbourne wins.

Barker says the idea of the double bill arose after the Sheiks played two concerts with the Cope Street Parade, which shares Finer Cuts band members Justin Fermino, Grant Arthur and Ben Panucci.

“We had an excellent gig at Camelot in Sydney where they have two stages and we did a proper battle, tune for tune — sometimes at the same time. We definitely won,” Barker says.

A New Sheiks show can include deep dark Delta blues, a New Orleans classic, or just a 21st century take on anything from the great jazz canon. The band comprises award-winning vocalist and violinist Heather Stewart, Eamon McNelis and Don Stewart on horns, Steve Grant on piano, Barker on double bass and Sam Young on the drums.

Geoff Bull formed his first New Orleans style band, the “Olympia” Jazz Band in the very early 1960s when he was 20. Now, 50 years on, Geoff (on trumpet and vocals) has joined young musicians — Justin Fermino reeds and vocals, Grant Arthur trombone and vocals, Harry Sutherland piano, Ben Panucci on guitar, tenor banjo and vocals, and Sam Dobson on double bass and vocals — to keep the tradition alive and give it a breath of fresh air.

Playing traditional tunes and originals, Bull and the Finer Cuts have two highly successful Sydney residencies a week and cut their first album early this year.

Leigh Barker and Ben Panucci took time out from their music to improvise some responses to questions from Ausjazz blog. Here they are, slightly mixed and remastered:

Ausjazz: The New Sheiks do a wide range of material. Is that true of The Cuts?

Barker: Not sure what material the Cuts will be be playing, but I’m sure it will be swinging its tits off (slightly less than us of course). They write their own songs, like us, and mix it with classic jazz repertoire from all eras.

Panucci: Lately the band has been experimenting with rapping from our bass player/MC (no joke)

Ausjazz: Usually traditional forms of jazz are played by older musicians (though of course they were young once). Is that changing? Is there a wish to hand on the baton or bring this music to younger audiences?

Barker: I would love to play this music to “younger audiences”, but frankly anyone and everyone should buy tickets. I don’t really believe in dividing up audiences into demographics. The venues end up doing that for you — we played at a big rock festival (Harvest) a few weeks ago and it was hard to know exactly what they made of us! The next week I was at the Phillip Island Jazz Festival, which was pretty much the total opposite in audience age.

Panucci: There have always been young people involved in the music and there always will be. Whether younger audiences decide to listen will depend on trends as well as how well we as musicians can market ourselves and use technology etc in our favour.

Ausjazz: Is there a future for more traditional jazz/improvised music? Will audiences warm to it?

Barker: They already do, and have, and always will. Swing and blues is always primarily an optimistic and inclusive music. It makes everyone in the room participants. The more the band is swinging, the less it feels like ‘here’s the band, and there’s the audience’. There is a future for this way of playing as long as we play it right… get to the right feeling, which gets people moving in their seats…. and dancing of course… then you can throw in a cerebral ballad to give them a bit of a rest!

Panucci: I feel that audiences are warming to it. Something that considerably changes people’s experience of music, I believe, is the context within which it is heard. If the music can be played in places that already attract discerning people, the music will speak for itself.

Ausjazz: When the Red Onions had a reunion a few years back there were long queues. Are your two bands following that tradition or do you see it as being quite different?

Barker: We all are influenced by the Red Onions, and there are many groups between them and us for instance The Hoodangers, George Washingmachine, Graeme Bell, the Shuffle Club, C.W. Stoneking. Australia has a long and rich history of swing and blues music. We don’t really play that sort of style, as they were striving — I think. Have to ask Al Browne! — for a very authentic New Orleans sound. The New Sheiks are far more eclectic and likely to play something from pretty much any period in jazz, including right now, or even older than jazz. We do some 19th century American folk tunes and songs I wrote last week.

Panucci: Our queues will be longer, our audiences will be younger and more attractive.

Ausjazz: Both these bands seem to pay attention to how they dress, at least in the publicity material. I’m not saying other jazz musicians are sloppy, but, well, they are more casual. Is this just PR or an important part of playing this sort of material?

Barker: One should always dress as good as one can. Or as good as you want to. I think Monk said something like that? There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that when you see a well dressed band you think ‘shit they look good’. Even though of course it makes no difference to the ‘sound’ of the band – it does make a huge difference to the social experience. Makes it feel like more of an event. I started dressing better when I saw ‘The Godfather’ series all the way through a few years back. Those guys look dangerous (in a good way).

Panucci: It obviously makes no difference to how you play, but it does help improve the atmosphere of a venue, which in turn improves the impact the music has. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with looking good.

Ausjazz: What about instrumentation? We don’t hear so much clarinet these days, yet I would love to hear more. In putting these bands together, was it about who was keen and available, or also about what instruments they could bring to the bands?

Barker: I can’t afford a reeds player, but sometimes we get to that feeling by having the fiddle, trumpet and trombone out front. I think in the future we will definitely do some shows and/or recordings as a seven-piece, and clarinet would definitely be up there as a first choice.

Panucci: It was about people who were keen, swinging, friends and interested in playing the music with respect for all of its stylistic idiosyncrasies.

Ausjazz: How do younger audiences react? Do they get up and dance? Can young people dance in the way that folk used to back in the days when dance halls and swing bands were where people went for entertainment?

Panucci: From my experience, if there’s space to dance and the band is swinging, everyone loves to dance in their own way. I’m sure if we played in a daggy RSL young people wouldn’t consider it, but within the context of a hip bar where everyone has had a few drinks dancing ensues. And yes, there are groups of dancers who are young and into keeping the dance style alive.

Barker: Oh yeah people dance. If we’re playing it right. Ultimate test. When people start moving, then you know, ‘we’re doing it right’. Happened a bit at the rock festival. But they won’t dance really well in those vintage styles unless they’ve taken classes. It’s a great thing, that people are studying those styles and coming to gigs, because it is a huge part of the music. But it’s like anything — you have to practise it to be good, so you can’t really compare it with a teenager from the ’30s who probably went dancing every night.

Ausjazz: The lyrics of some songs may not be PC. For example, “Closer to the Bone” arguably talks about slim women as meat. Are these songs just fun and not meant to be taken seriously, or are they likely to get a cool reception from audiences who are conscious of misogyny and women asserting their rights not be sex objects? I found a dancer’s blog which made reference to this song.

Barker: A lot of the lyrics are very, very dirty. That example you cited is probably medium-high on the filth-o-meter. There are things that Jelly Roll Morton sang in the ’20s that would make rappers blush. But I think most of the time people aren’t listening to the words at all, they’re just ‘pitched mouth noises’. Albert Murray argues that lyrics in blues are secondary to the timbre and feeling being sung, and that the blues singers deliberately obscured the lyrics with slang and strong accents to de-emphasise them. Some people get a good giggle out of them though.

[Panucci preferred not to comment on this without a chance to discuss it with the band.]

Ausjazz: How does each group choose material? Is it mostly old songs, old ones re-worked or new ones in the style of Delta blues or New Orleans songs?

Barker: I pick songs that are a little left of centre and that are structurally interesting. And things that Heather Stewart wants to sing. That’s why I started writing my own because then you don’t have to go looking for something if you want a certain tempo or vibe — you just write the tune how you want it!

Panucci: Geoff generally brings in most of the standard repertoire we play and some of us also write original music or teach the band a song we’ve heard that we would like to sing/play. We also try to keep track of songs that are particularly well received.

Ausjazz: What is the appeal of this music for young members of the two bands? Is it more fun to play? Is it an escape from the cool modern jazz that does not necessarily swing, or set toes tapping or get people up dancing? Has jazz gone too far towards serious stuff that people may have to work at before they can appreciate?

Panucci: It is fun. There is a genuine rapport that can be felt between the band and the audience and, yes, it isn’t too serious (in relation to more modern jazz styles). Most of us play many styles of music from modern jazz through to soul, hip hop, bluegrass and rock. This is just one of the many delicious fruits to be savoured on the tree of music.

Barker: This is the big scary controversial question. I feel more and more that when a musician gets up in the morning, they should be thinking, “What sort of music do I absolutely have to play no matter what because my soul would wither if I didn’t?” and then do that sort of music at 110 per cent all the time. Why waste precious time and resources on music you’re only half hearted about? So whatever you’re in to — do it with as much love and passion as possible.

So it’s not an ‘escape’ from other ways of playing, just shouting to the world, “This is what rocks my world, check it out”.

‘Cool’ is an interesting choice of words, because allegedly Lester Young invented it, but I think the best jazz is when its ‘hot’ (regardless of style). Cool has a lot to answer for…

Ausjazz: I may have misused “cool”. Dispassionate perhaps, but that does not capture it. Kind of like the difference between a party and a really engrossing lecture.

No, no that’s what I meant: ‘being cool’ is still a good thing, but ‘playing cool’ I think has become problematic as an aesthetic for playing. Only in that there isn’t so much of a balance — (there’s) not enough ‘hot’ music these days!



Stonnington Jazz opening night at Malvern Town Hall, Thursday, May 19, 2011
Sarah McKenzie piano and vocals, Eamon McNelis trumpet, Carlo Barbaro saxophone, Hugh Stuckey guitar, Alex Boneham bass, Craig Simon drums
Guests: Julien Wilson saxophone, Phil Bernotto percussion

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

She’s vivacious, she’s engaging, she’s spirited and she can woo an audience as if she’s been doing it for years, but Sarah McKenzie is only 22. She was an ideal choice by artistic director Adrian Jackson to open Stonnington Jazz 2011 with two concerts at Malvern Town Hall, and I’m willing to bet guests at tables and in the balcony seats  loved this lively performance by McKenzie, her sextet and guests. It was also perfect timing for McKenzie, whose newly released album Don’t Tempt Me was selling steadily to queues of patrons during the break and after the concert.

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

McKenzie’s appeal is not hard to understand. As an advertisement for jazz, she is just what the doctor ordered. So what’s her appeal? Obviously she looks just a tad better than most jazz musicians who have been around the block a few times, so photographers are keen to snap images that could be used to boost the ratings of jazz. But this young artist’s attraction derives primarily, I believe, from the fact that she is — despite her youth — a born entertainer.

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

Her animated facial expressions and gestures, which are so ideal for the cameras, also appeal to the audience because they communicate McKenzie’s enthusiasm and sheer love for what she’s doing. It’s contagious. When she talks about how she discovered jazz or tells us that, at 16 when she wrote Love Me or Leave Me, she didn’t know it was a standard, we are caught up in her passion for the music. There is a frankness, an openness and honesty to McKenzie’s approach as a performer that is refreshing and appealing. But she also has a natural talent for working an audience that belies her years.

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

In this respect McKenzie is similar to her mentor, James Morrison, who has that ability to captivate an audience and impart his enthusiasm for whatever he’s playing and whoever he’s playing with. So, this opening night concert raises a broader issue: Is jazz or improvised music these days often less about entertainment and more about musicians pursuing their particular paths? Are audience numbers down because there is less of the “entertainment” aspect to performances? Well, to play devil’s advocate, I believe many hold the view that jazz would have more bums on seats with more artists like James Morrison, while that view would be anathema to musicians who believe in moving into exciting new territory regardless of audience appeal. It’s an interesting question.

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

So, now for a review of the concert. I loved the engagement with the audience and McKenzie’s infectious passion. She was clearly enjoying herself and that helped the audience to enjoy her performance. As well, she sang mostly standards or audience favourites, such as You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To, The Way You Look Tonight, Cry Me A River, I’ve Got the Blues Tonight, Summertime, Bye Bye Black Bird and, for an encore, (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66. For good measure, she added interpretations of Love Me Tender (which succeeded) and St James Infirmary (which was a too jaunty for this bleak song in my view). So she was not pushing any boundaries.

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

I wished a few things to be different. I would have liked to hear more original songs, such as McKenzie’s version of Love Me Or Leave Me. I would have liked her to try some much more adventurous material, some songs with the potential to go into more edgy territory.

Julien Wilson

Julien Wilson

Eamon McNelis and Carlo Barbaro

Eamon McNelis and Carlo Barbaro

Hugh Stuckey

Hugh Stuckey

And I would have loved to have heard members of the sextet, and the guests, being given more room to move and time to take some serious solos. McKenzie had a talented band — which she clearly recognised —  but we heard solos from Eamon McNelis, Hugh Stuckey, Carlo Barbaro and Julien Wilson that were so brief as to be frustrating. They whet our appetites and then stopped after a tiny entree.

Alex Boneham

Alex Boneham and (bottom left) Craig Simon

Finally, and this is a longer term wish for this young artist, I’d like to feel moved by her singing rather than enticed by her youthful exuberance. That is possibly unfair and a bit like asking her to suddenly become many years older and tap into the deeper feelings and angst that can come with life’s tough times. But it is also a fervent wish that Sarah McKenzie digs deep and stretches herself so that there are risks in her material and in the way she performs. In short, I would like to see McKenzie vying for a commission concert at Melbourne’s Jazz Fringe Festival in years to come.

For now, this young artist left plenty of happy punters filing out of Malvern Town Hall.

Sarah McKenzie

Hugh Stuckey and Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie

Eamon McNelis with improvised mute

Eamon McNelis with improvised mute



Ausjazz blog previews Stonnington Jazz 2011 — May 19 to May 29

The days are suddenly much colder and the nights have that stay-at-home chill. Many of us are suffering from sore throats, persistent coughs and similar energy-sapping afflictions. So what’s the incentive to venture out to hear live music? During the past few nights I’ve had some of the worst coughing bouts in years, so I sympathise with anyone wanting to hunker down at home. But there are some real spirit-lifting performances coming up at Stonnington Jazz (May 19 to 29) and that’s exactly what we need as winter sets in. So, why not decide to catch one or two of these gigs over the 10 days of this festival? Go on, (to use an expression doing the rounds at our house), you know you want to.

The full program is online at the Stonnington Jazz website, so this preview is merely picking out some highlights — essentially what Ausjazz blog fancies as the gigs not to miss.

One thing to keep in mind about Stonnington Jazz. This is all home-grown talent and there is plenty of it. International artists can be a thrill, but this festival’s strength is that these musicians are ours — inventive and able and with the freedom that comes from being so far from the big names in the United States.

 Sarah McKenzie Sextet
Sarah McKenzie at Stonnington Jazz 2010

The artists who are likely to feature in print media publicity for the festival are probably pianist and vocalist Sarah McKenzie, who will open the festival on Thursday and Friday nights (May 19 and 20) with her sextet; vocalist Katie Noonan, who will perform on May 22 with Elixir (Zac Hurren on sax and Stephen Magnusson on guitar); and Vince Jones & Band plus guests (May 21).

McKenzie is an engaging performer who delivers swinging standards and originals in a forthright and spirited manner that recognises the long history of jazz vocalists. She wowed crowds at Chapel Off Chapel during this festival last year and will return — this time at the Malvern Town Hall — with award-winning Eamon McNelis on trumpet (replacing Pat Thiele) and Alex Boneham on bass (replacing Sam Anning). Julien Wilson will be a special guest on sax. This venue will be larger and acoustically tougher, but McKenzie has the power to fill the hall. She will be launching her new album Don’t Tempt Me (ABC Jazz).

Allan Browne

Festival hopping: Allan Browne performs at Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival.

Ausjazz blog’s list of anticipated highlights begins with drummer and Stonnington Jazz Patron Allan Browne, who on May 22 at 2pm presents a program of musical portraits and poems inspired by some of the great jazz artists he has played with, including Johnny Griffin, Milt Jackson, Art Hodes, Wild Bill Davison, Emily Remler, Buddy Tate, Teddy Wilson, Mal Waldron and Jay McShann. Joining Allan will be members of his quintet — trumpeter Eugene Ball, saxophonist Phil Noy, guitarist Geoff Hughes, bassist Nick Haywood — and trio (Haywood and pianist Marc Hannaford). All those names may look like a laundry list, but Al Browne and his crew have been trying out this new material at some Bennetts Lane gigs on Mondays and, though I have not made it to these gigs, I am certain the result will be moving as well as lots of fun. Jazz and poetry may not always work, but the Browne Quintet suites The Drunken Boat and Une Saison En Enfer are evidence enough that these guys know what they’re doing.

Any opportunity to hear Sydney’s Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra is to be valued. You may be surprised at how a big band can do much more than merely blast away. Under the direction of saxophonist David Theak, JMO is a sensitive, expressive beast. And the finals of the National Big Band Composition Competition will add interest to this outing at Chapel Off Chapel at 7.30pm on Monday, May 23.

Anyone who heard Lost and Found at Wangaratta Jazz some years back, when Paul Grabowsky, Jamie Oehlers and Dave Beck played a standout set of unscripted improvisation, will value the chance to hear Grabowsky and Oehlers. Their 2010 album On A Clear Day explored their take on some standards. These two musicians will show the depth of their musical understanding in a Chapel Off Chapel double bill with Nat Bartsch Trio on May 24.

Stu Hunter

Sweet suite: Stu Hunter at Wangaratta

How suite it is that pianist / composer Stu Hunter‘s two magnificent suites — The Muse and The Gathering — will be played at Chapel Off Chapel on succeeding nights (May 25 and 26). The second work won Contemporary Jazz Album of the Year at the Bell Awards and Best Independent Jazz album in the Independent Music Awards in 2010. Both were huge hits at Wangaratta. I marginally prefer The Gathering, with the larger ensemble adding Phil Slater on trumpet and James Greening on trombone and pocket trumpet to quartet members Julien Wilson (on sax rather than Matt Keegan this time), Cameron Undy (instead of Jonathan Swartz on bass) and Simon Barker (drums).

But the deal is so good it’s hard to believe, because each gig has a substantial other half. Along with The Muse, tenor saxophonist Andy Sugg will fuel controversy over whether jazz stays tied to its apron strings or is let off the leash to explore (apologies for the mixed metaphors). Sugg, with help from Shannon Barnett on trombone, Natalia Mann on harp, Steve Magnusson on guitar, Kate Kelsey-Sugg on piano, Ben Robertson on bass and James McLean on drums, will endeavour to link John Coltrane‘s music with British punk, and use some technologically up-to-date devices to give Coltrane’s later music “radically new contexts”. I understand Wynton Marsalis has sent his apologies.

Scott Tinkler on fire at MJFF Big Arse Sunday 2011

Scott Tinkler on fire at MJFF Big Arse Sunday 2011

The other half of the The Gathering gig will feature four names to strike terror into their instruments and evoke frenzied adulation from their fans: Ian Chaplin, Scott Tinkler, Philip Rex and Simon Barker. On sax, trumpet, bass and drums respectively, these “daring and potent improvisers” (as the program notes put it) will be fathering children … no, sorry, creating a storm of fiery improvisation that will delight body and soul. (I know this because I heard Tinkler with bass and drums on the final night of Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival this year — he’s in great form.)

That this list of highlights is growing too long and in danger of leaving out little is testament to the quality of the programming by artistic director (and trophy-winning golfer) Adrian Jackson. So I’ll gloss over some gigs (Tina Harrod; Bloodlines: Dave Macrae, Joy Yates & Jade Macrae; Joe Chindamo Trio and guests) to mention three more.

Bassist Leigh Barker and The New Sheiks, flush with Jazz Bell Awards success (and cash), will keep things swinging at Chapel Off Chapel on Friday, May 27, giving patrons a chance to catch Eamon McNelis on trumpet. And sharing the stage for another set will be the collectively led Bopstretch, with McNelis, Rajiv Jayaweera (is there anywhere he’s not playing?) on drums, Ben Hauptmann on guitar and Mark Elton on bass. This band will play classic 1950s BeBop era material, with tunes from some famous names.

On the festival’s second Saturday, May 28, Chapel Off Chapel patrons will be treated to a top double bill. Paul Williamson (the saxophonist version) will add to his Hammond Combo guests Geoff Achison (blues fans will be there) on guitar and vocals, James Greening on trombone, Gil Askey on trumpet and vocals, and Bob Sedergreen on keyboards. Get ready for jazz with an R&B flavour. At the same gig, trombonist Shannon Barnett will perform with the quartet that released the album Country in 2010 and toured nationally after being awarded a contemporary music touring program grant.

James Greening

James Greening at Wangaratta in 2010

Finally, Ausjazz blog’s highlights list ends with a combination I would not miss for quids. On Sunday, May 29 at 2pm, in a quartet of revered musicians (Sandy Evans saxophones, James Greening trombone & pocket trumpet, Steve Elphick bass), saxophonist Andrew Robson will perform his arrangements of hymns by Thomas Tallis. And Greening, forming The World According to James with Elphick, Robson and Toby Hall on drums, will perform original compositions. What a way to finish a festival.

As these highlights demonstrate, there is a lot of class to this festival. Because the program revisits some bands and works aired previously either at Stonnington or Wangaratta, I was initially inclined to think there was less breaking of new ground than in past years. Perhaps so, but for anyone who has not had an opportunity to hear these musicians before, and for all those who have heard and want to listen again, Stonnington Jazz has a power of Australian music in store.