Tag Archives: melbourne international jazz festival

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

 

 

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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

SUSTENANCE FOR THE SOUL

The Gravity Project

The Gravity Project                      Image: Roger Mitchell

REVIEW

Melbourne International Jazz Festival, 1 – 10 June 2018

Paul Grabowsky AO wrote Tokyo Overpass with Haruki Murakami’s novel IQ84 as inspiration — the story of a young woman who climbs down a ladder from an elevated highway when her taxi is stuck in a traffic jam and enters a parallel universe.

That could be a metaphor for this festival’s engrossing opening concert, The Gravity Project, a cross-cultural exchange with the Tokyo Jazz Festival featuring Japan’s Kuniko Obina on koto, Masaki Nakamura on shakuhachi and Tokyo resident Aaron Choulai on laptop/electronics.

In three pieces — Beat Hayashi, Tokyo Overpass and Plum Rain (the latter allegedly conjuring Burt Bacharach as a manga character) — this octet with Grabowsky (piano), Rob Burke (reeds), Niran Dasika (trumpet), Marty Holoubek (bass) and James McLean (drums) took us to a very different and exciting place that commanded attention and demanded immediate designation as a festival highlight.

This was riveting, abstract and at times surreal music, bristling with sometimes piercing shakuhachi notes, electronic squeaks, bent-note “gulps”, stuttering voices (a la Max Headroom), disruptive horns and koto notes tangible enough to touch. Yet amid the complexity, drama and tension there were periods of exquisitely beautiful simplicity. What a magnificent way to begin 10 days of music. This was indeed a highlight.

Also compelling were the pieces played when reedsman Tony Malaby (US) joined Kris Davis (Canada) on piano and Simon Barker (Australia) for a take-no-prisoners outing on Monday 4 June at The Jazzlab. There were tunes — Alechinsky, Kei’s Dream, Warblepeck, Bird Call and Remolino — but, as Malaby said in a 2015 interview, “I’m not writing tunes, but providing an opening sentence or paragraph.” All three musicians needed no more.

This was not a concert for the faint-hearted. But the audience probably knew what to expect, which was the unexpected — music challenging in its abstractness and complexity.

I was reminded of my experience when reading that magnificent novel Lincoln in the Bardo: difficult to get into at first and then totally consuming once I had entered that world. All made sense once my frame of reference shifted.

Some in the audience no doubt heard in Malaby’s work elements of Lovano, Coltrane, Ayler or Shepp. Instead, I valued many facets of this outing: patterns, contrasts, mayhem, beauty, responsiveness, intensity, variations in dynamics, sharp edges, peaceful interludes, sprinklings of notes (Davis), lashings of sound, guttural growlings, rumbling cascades, shifts in rhythm and tempo, disrupting abruptness of drums, airy resonance of reeds, gradual serenity, release and relief.

On 6 June at the same venue Malaby and Davis joined Scott Tinkler (Tasmania) and the Monash Art Ensemble to play Davis’s arrangements of music from Malaby’s Novela project. As the nonet played Floating Head, Mother’s Love, Warblepeck, Floral and Herbaceous, and Remolino, I marvelled at the exquisite intricacy, textural richness and encapsulated imagery in this wonderful music, delivered so well by students and their mentors. Again I was feeling the notes in 3D, tangible enough to touch. Tinkler, muted and otherwise, was superb, as were Rob Burke on bass clarinet, Josh Bennier on trombone, Jared Becker on baritone, and — so often — Dan Gordon on tuba. (It would be great to see women students in the Monash Art Ensemble, but I understand that the gender imbalance has deeper roots than university level.)

Quite a few festival gigs were sold out. Two concerts on 7 June brought the London club scene to The Jazzlab in a warmly energetic and engaging outing by tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia and her killer band — Joe Armon-Jones on piano, Daniel Casimir on double bass and Femi Koleoso on drums. There were solos —including Garcia’s in the closing piece that took her tenor, which was never harsh or abrasive, into deep, resonant territory — but this was very much a team effort, attentiveness and responsiveness built in. The rhythm section was a treat to hear on its own and Koleoso’s intensity never let up. This group made me want to check out the London scene, soon.

Another set of concerts that were sold out were four at The Jazzlab on 9 & 10 June featuring frequent visitor to Australia, bassist Christian McBride, with his piano-less band New JawnMarcus Strickland on bass clarinet, soprano and tenor saxes, Josh Evans on trumpet and Nasheet Waits on drums.

McBride was characteristically engaging at the mic between songs, but as the band worked through Walkin’ Funny (McBride), Sightseeing (Shorter), Kush (Waits), Seek the Source (Strickland), the tribute to a departed friend John Day (McBride) and a jaunty version of The Good Life (Ornette Coleman) I felt that these accomplished players could really have done it all in their sleep and possibly needed some.

Waits’ work stood out throughout and especially behind the impressive Evans’s solos, and John Day featured McBride in a great duo with Strickland on bass clarinet. But there wasn’t quite the intensity and drive, or the fire, that I’d hoped for from this line-up on the night. Others will probably disagree — I doubt that many patrons left dissatisfied.

About now a warm glow suffuses across this review as I recall two similarly packed 9.30pm concerts at The Jazzlab —on Sunday 3 June, featuring Terri Lyne Carrington & Social Science, and, on Tuesday 5 June, Harry James Angus’s Struggle With Glory.

The lighting was the only possible complaint about the Social Science outing, Debo Ray passionately delivering emotive vocals in the near darkness while interacting with the rapid yet smooth moves of white-clad Kassa Overall, who was in full glare of a spotlight for his cryptic rap. Carrington at the drum kit was the linchpin of this sextet, which also featured Aaron Parks on keys, Morgan Guerin on sax and Matthew Stevens on guitar, but she sought none of the limelight as they gently, but potently explored racism, discrimination, police killings and the need “to pray the hate away”.

Outside afterwards a couple of shockingly racist would-be patrons brought to the fore our similar problems in this country, but I left the gig with the feeling that I’d attended a left-wing, justice-fired prayer meeting and been cleansed by the power of good vibes. This was gentle persuasion by music rather than words, but it was a reassuring and awakening in equal measure.

A more fervent vibe infused Struggle With Glory, in which Harry James Angus (Cat Empire) on trumpet and vocals managed the unlikely marriage of Greco-Roman myths with old-time jazz and gospel vibes. It worked, partly because he took the time to engagingly explain the stories and partly because his band delivered with feeling.

In eight pieces from the album released in March, this band — Ben Gillespie on trombone, Monique Di Mattina on piano, Freyja Hooper on drums, Tamara Murphy on bass and Lachlan Mitchell on guitar — wowed the audience with their musicianship and vocal harmonies. And HJA’s excellent whistling. Again this was a feel-good gig that will hopefully encourage more people to come out for live music.

Two other MIJF concerts filled with energy, exemplary musicianship and toe-tapping beats featured Daniel Susnjar’s new Afro-Peruvian Jazz Group (The Jazzlab, 9.30pm Monday 4 June) and Steve Sedergreen’s Points in Time (The Jazzlab, 9.30pm Wednesday 6 June). For me, these concerts came immediately after the two Tony Malaby gigs mentioned, so it wasn’t easy to adjust, but in each case audience approval was clear.

It’s part of a festival’s job to entertain, but also to challenge. One of the experimental concerts this year, as is always the case, came with the PBS Young Elder of Jazz commission concert on at 9.30pm on Friday 1 June at The Jazzlab by pianist Brenton Foster, entitled Love, As We Know It.

Foster — in a quartet with Gideon Brazil (flute, clarinet, saxophone), Stephen Magnusson (guitar), Jordan Tarento (bass) and Aaron McCullough (drums) — composed music to accompany sung adaptations of poems by Christopher Pointdexter (known for delivering his words via typewriter on Instagram). This was difficult music played very well indeed, but it was a tough task to communicate the compressed ideas in the poetry in a way that would permit an audience to grasp their full import. Yet Foster’s compositions had unexpected strength and drama obviously meant to pick up on the torments and dramas of lives and loves.

I believe this concert would have benefited greatly from a visual display of the poet’s text in some way while the words were sung and accompanying music played.

An even greater challenge came on Friday 8 June at The Substation in Three Solos performed sequentially by Tony Buck (The Necks), Peter Knight (Australian Art Orchestra artistic director) and experimental Norwegian guitarist Kim Myhr. After many evenings of performances by musicians under lights handing us their music on a platter, so to speak, it was hard to be left in the dark, literally, amid the amplified crackles, tiny tinklings, abrasive static, plinks and plonks created by the black “bee-suited” figure with wind-chime hat who sat facing away from the audience. Buck must have intended us to listen attentively rather than watch to see how he created these sounds — something most of us were not attuned to doing.

Minutiae also was surely the intent of Knight’s delicate explorations of sound generated with water in his trumpet and the recording and amplification — with the help of a Revox B77 reel-to-reel tape machine and other devices — of grains of rice falling. When the audience later turned full circle to hear Myhr on 12-string guitar, his instrument hidden behind a table of electronic equipment, the subtlety of variations as he strummed and adjusted settings may well have escaped all but the most diligent listeners.

These three solos were challenging not merely because they took us out of our comfort zones, but because of the risk that we would find too little in each to provoke a response, whether love or hate. That said, a lot of work goes into these performances and the artistic endeavour deserves to be acknowledged — perhaps in this case more as art than music.

On the following evening, the Australian Art Orchestra performed the world premiere of an orchestral work by Myhr. The ensemble comprised Myhr (guitar), Knight (trumpet, electronics, hammered dulcimer), Buck (drums, percussion), Aviva Endean (bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, zither), Lizzy Welsh (violin), Erkki Veltheim (viola), Jacques Emery (contra bass, zither), Joe Talia (Revox B77 reel-to-reel tape machine, electronics) and Jem Savage (live sound, associate producer).

This was truly a work for ensemble as collective. Over three parts of 16, 21 and 17 minutes respectively, all contributed to creating a multi-layered and highly finessed whole that enveloped and drifted above us in the large space.

The first part employed the strings in a slow, regular configuration that evolved into wave formations conjuring, for me, phosphorescent ocean swells in moonlight. The second had more structure, movement and change, building intensity in its complexity. The third part contrasted fast, light and intricate work at the drum kit with waves of vibrato shimmer while moving gradually to a long denouement. This was carefully crafted and intricately executed music that caressed rather than challenged.

I did not get to many of the festival concerts, including those at larger venues. But the 12 gigs I did attend were enough to demonstrate there are many ways to present and appreciate this music we loosely call jazz. But the excitement of live music is deeply sustaining.

I attended two of the jam sessions hosted by The Rookies and had a great time at each, bailing out only after 2am. These gatherings of musicians and fans also provide much enjoyment and lasting sustenance for the soul.

ROGER MITCHELL

Note: Images will be added to this post in due course.