Tag Archives: melbourne international jazz festival

Is jazz winning an Aria? … Sounds jazzy to me.

Ellie Lamb conducts during the performance of Between Worlds. Image: Roger Mitchell

REVIEW

Melbourne International Jazz Festival

December 2-5 2021

Stories. That’s what music is about, whether those stories are conveyed via a festival, a concert, a suite, a song or a solo.

Words, whether explanatory or in songs, can help tell stories. Other stories are passed on without words, conveyed powerfully in notes and passages that stir emotions and provoke responses.

The short story of this year’s Melbourne International Jazz Festival is how successfully an October program involving more than 400 artists in 120 events at 30 venues was improvised at short notice into an intensive four days of exhilarating live music in December, albeit with unavoidable clashes and an initial scramble for tickets.

The longer account can begin with a contrast in communication. The Melbourne Recital Centre concert featuring the festival’s inaugural Artist in Residence, Paul Grabowsky, and vocalist Emma Donovan on Saturday night was a triumph in many ways – one being the connections evident between Donovan’s musical grounding in family. There was power in her voice, but just as much in her stories of how grandparents Aileen Bradshaw Quinlan and Micko Donovan, who had “music in their bodies”, had shaped her own love of this gospel-infused music, delivered under the title of The Old Rugged Cross.

Paul Grabowsky, Emma Donovan and Philip Rex in The Old Rugged Cross. Image: Screen grab

As Grabowsky’s lively arrangements gave members of the superb accompanying septet a chance to shine – especially the pianist, Audrey Powne on trumpet, Stephen Magnusson on guitar and Mirko Guerrini on saxophone – Donovan tapped into deep emotions when delivering grandfather Micko’s songs Miracle Man and The Promised Land.

Maria Moles, Stephen Magnusson and Adrian Sherriff acknowledge Amos Roach. Image: RM

Earlier that evening, when the Australian Art Orchestra’s First Nations Artist in Residence Amos Roach joined AAO musicians Magnusson, Adrian Sherriff and Maria Moles, and the Murrundaya Yepengna dancers, for Six Seasons, this introduction to Indigenous story telling through song cycles was often mesmerising. Roach, deeply expressive on the droning, pulsating yidaki, underpinned this dramatic presentation, but his words of explanation about what we were witnessing in the dancers’ movements came late in the performance, before four short illustrative dances that seemed almost an afterthought. I felt that the appreciative audience could have gained greater understanding of these important ancestral stories with a little more guidance. Clearly, however, the story of the AAO working with First Nations performers is only beginning.

Niran Dasika and Ellie Lamb in full flight during Between Worlds. Image: Roger Mitchell

Also on Saturday, but in The Jazzlab, trombonist Ellie Lamb’s suite Between Worlds, commissioned for the MIJF Take Note program, boldly explored identity and the experience of living between genres and genders. Lamb left their talented octet to tell this story without interruption and without announcing the expressive titles of the six pieces: Flying, Falling; Dreaming; Sinking; Drowning; Breaking; and Being.

This non-verbal approach reflected their view, as expressed to ABC radio’s Andrew Ford on The Music Show, that “music is an abstract way of storytelling” and improvised music can convey emotions “in a more tangible way than simply saying words”.

Lamb’s suite was complex and powerful, evoking tension through dissonance that movingly and disturbingly conveyed the confusion, anxiety and dysphoria associated with not necessarily conforming to rigid gender boundaries. The release of tension was evoked by contrasting moods, but most evident in the tumultuous finish. Niran Dasika on trumpet, Madison Carter on drums and Shaun Rammers on tenor sax and clarinet deserve special mention in this compelling musical narrative, as does Lamb on trombone.

Audrey Powne and Flora Carbo perform with Aura at The Salon, MRC. Image: Roger Mitchell

A much gentler musical story emerged in the acoustically rich Primrose Potter Salon at the MRC on Thursday December 2 when quartet Aura treated us to a set of thoughtful and beautifully crafted pieces, some originating when band members met in 2019 while at the Banff Centre’s Workshop in Jazz and Improvised Music in Canada directed by Vijay Iyer and Tyshawn Sorey. Tamara Murphy stepped in for Helen Svoboda on bass, joining Audrey Powne trumpet, Flora Carbo alto saxophone and South Australia’s Kyrie Anderson drums. These compositions seemed to reflect the ensemble’s beginnings in the crisp air and open spaces of Banff, as well as wanderings and explorations into new territory. Highlights were Anderson’s Dissociation Daze, with eerie horns building tension and intrigue, and Carbo’s The Ultimate Premiere, featuring unhurried bass work and independent horn journeys with bent trumpet musings and breathy sax.

Delightful ease and fluidity along with seamless mood changes were the hallmarks of a Sunday afternoon outing by the unassuming John Scurry’s Reverse Swing at The Jazzlab. But not only was this superb septet – Scurry guitar, Brennan Hamilton-Smith clarinet, Stephen Grant piano, James Macaulay trombone, Eugene Ball trumpet, Howard Cairns bass, Danny Fischer drums – so musically enticing, but every song played had a story – a history behind it. So from I Live In A House (from a loved Allan Browne poem), through My Cat Moves Like Putin (a mincing walk in an “Elizabethan collar”) to the pre-encore Splendidly Over the Moon (a friend: I’ve met someone) we were treated to brief anecdotes to accompany accomplished musicality. This was a treat.

Johannes Luebbers conducts his dectet in A Tapestry in 10 Pieces. Image: Roger Mitchell

Another delight came from a rich vein of stories tapped by composer/conductor Johannes Luebbers from members of his dectet as part of A Tapestry in 10 Pieces – a project in which he created 10 works in 10 years, one for each of the 10 players, after engaging each in conversation to ascertain their listening habits, musical loves and technical interests of the featured soloist. At The Jazzlab on Sunday evening the dectet, with Tamara Murphy sitting in for Hiroki Hoshino on bass, played seven of the pieces with such responsiveness and attention to Luebbers’ nuanced direction that each was sublime. Hosh Posh afforded the players a bit more freedom, but other more tightly scripted compositions brought such a broad palette of colours, harmonies and timbres that nothing felt at all constrained. This performance was ultimately the festival highlight for me as well as a demonstration of a composer drawing inspiration and limitations from musicians’ stories.

Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the MRC was a fitting setting for the Sam Anning Septet to launch their recent album Oatchapai, with atmospheric lighting and haze effects ushering us into a slowly unfolding world of mystery. Julien Wilson on bass clarinet set the sombre mood early in the opening Tjurunga and the ensemble added majesty. A break in the sobriety came in Stretchroactivities, which had an old time feel. Spoken word soundscapes delivered by Anning were enigmatic, defying easy interpretation amid the instrumental musical stories, but it was hard to escape the sense of deep questions being asked or matters explored. Ultimately the most compelling stories in this outing came in the integrated and labrinthian musical contributions by the players.

In a much smaller setting, The Jazzlab, on Thursday December 2, trumpeter Mat Jodrell led another great group to launch Grateful, which seemed in its intent “to uplift and keep us headed on the right path” to be so apposite to our pandemic predicament, yet was recorded in February 2019 – a year before the world became much more uncertain. The liner notes said, “In this ever-changing, uncertain world in which we live, to be grateful is one of the most powerful tools we have to bring joy to ourselves and others.”

Jimmy Macbride on drums and Miki Yamanaka and piano were replaced in this outing by Dave Beck and Andrea Keller. The latter was compelling and captivating at the piano, as always, and the former demonstrated clarity, focus and depth of eager involvement throughout. For brevity’s sake let’s revive the old school sports report line that “all players played well”, but in this case really mean that in spades. This was a hugely uplifting concert with which to start four days of festival.

Another launch at The Jazzlab – the Angela Davis Quartet’s Maximilian Project – on Sunday demonstrated saxophonist Davis’s commitment to bring a project to fruition despite pandemic constraints. She was ably supported by Stephen Magnusson on guitar, Frank Di Sario on bass and Patrick Danao on drums. These smooth compositions, drawing on Davis’s experiences of motherhood and raising a newborn child during Covid time, suggest that calmness and strength can be mustered in the face of such challenges.

Emily Bennett: ready to be “a jazz woman”. Image: Roger Mitchell

Last in place, but not least, was the launch of Lost in Place by Reuben Lewis’s I Hold the Lion’s Paw at The Jazzlab on Thursday night, December 2. In the words of reviewer Des Cowley, this album can be summed up as “stripped-down trumpet utterances, electronic soundscapes, and weird vibrations”. Cowley’s comprehensive liner notes conclude that “Lewis has given us a timely meditation on our growing need to navigate a path through overwhelming social, economic and global turmoil, as we seek a place – even if temporarily – to land.”

I arrived late, temporarily lost on the freeway and then heading in the opposite direction to the venue. I found a space and settled in for serious listening, focused on the solemn features of Ronny Ferella at the drum kit. After a while voice artist Emily Bennett launched a totally improvised, slightly distorted monologue that was highly amusing and yet quite pointed in the context of recent social media debates.

I quote some of her words not to suggest they are all that Lost in Place is about, but because it was a significant part of this gig on this night:

“What is jazz really? Is jazz winning an Aria? Is it playing in a jazz festival? Is it saying, ‘I like jazz’? Is it watching jazz? Is it saying ‘I like jazz’? I like it a lot. It sounds jazzy to me and … I’m ready to be … a jazz woman. I’m ready to be the poster girl of the band that’s not mine. I’m ready to have my photo taken. I’m ready to take the sauce bottle and have a fair shake of it…”

These questions can be left without comment. But they added to the Lost in Place story.

And so must the stories of the many gigs at this year’s MIJF that I missed be added to the individual stories behind all the notes played and notes unplayed. And to the stories of each listener at each concert. These are all stories worth hearing.

ROGER MITCHELL

IS INTENSE … IS GOOD?

Miles Okazaki

Miles Okazaki plays Monk on solo guitar.   Image: Roger Mitchell

REVIEW
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.

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Herbie Hancock in full flight with his keytar at Hamer Hall.   Image: Roger Mitchell

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.

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When the lighting’s so Kind of Blue that colour is permissible.    Image: Roger Mitchell

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.

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Colin Hopkins, Eugene Ball, Nick Haywood, James McLean and Stephen Magnusson have fun with Petra Haden.    Image: Roger Mitchell

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.

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Ian Chang on drums in the half light.

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.

ROGER MITCHELL

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.

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The final jam session at The Jazzlab, hosted by The Rookies. Image: Roger Mitchell

 

 

HERBIE HANCOCK’S RETURNING

Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock                                       Image supplied

NEWS

Headline artist announced,
Melbourne International Jazz Festival, May 31 to June 9, 2019

Herbie Hancock will be back in town once again, this time to close this year’s Melbourne International Jazz Festival in June.

Announcing this news today, festival artistic director Michael Tortoni  said, “We are excited to make this early announcement and extremely honoured that Herbie Hancock is returning to Melbourne to close the festival. Our festival program will continue to offer a diversity of experiences that will showcase many outstanding Australian and international artists.”

Billed as the master of modern jazz, 78-year-old Herbie Hancock has had an illustrious career now in its sixth decade and has won 14 Grammy awards, influencing acoustic and electronic jazz, R&B and hip-hop.

The festival media release notes that Miles Davis said in his autobiography “Herbie was the step after Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and I haven’t heard anybody yet who has come after him.”

The release lists among Hancock’s modern day standards Cantaloupe Island, Chameleon and Rockit. His significant partnerships include work with artists such as Wayne Shorter, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner and Annie Lennox, Snoop Dog, Flying Lotus and Pink.

It’s said that no one should miss an opportunity to see Herbie Hancock live. He will be joined on the Hamer Hall stage by a hand-picked band to close the Melbourne International Jazz Festival for 2019.

In 2010 Hancock released the critically-acclaimed CD, The Imagine Project, winner of two 2011 Grammy™ Awards for Best Pop Collaboration and Best Improvised Jazz Solo. With themes of peace and global responsibility, The Imagine Project was recorded around the world and features musicians including Jeff Beck, Seal,Pink, Dave Matthews, The Chieftains, Lionel Loueke, Oumou Sangare, Konono #l, Anoushka Shankar, Chaka Khan, Marcus Miller, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Tinariwen, and Ceu.

Hancock was named by the Los Angeles Philharmonic as Creative Chair For Jazz, and serves as Institute Chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. He is a founder of The International Committee of Artists for Peace, and was awarded the  “Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres” by then French prime minister Francois Fillon.

In July 2011 Hancock was designated an honorary UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.

Dates:

Saturday, 8 June 2019
Sunday, 9 June 2019
Time 7.30pm
Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall, 100 St Kilda Road, Southbank
Tickets $79 – $149 (plus transaction fee) Bookings melbournejazz.com

ROGER MITCHELL