Melbourne International Jazz Festival
14-23 October 2022
Optimism flowed freely in the first Melbourne International Jazz Festival freed from covid-19 lockdowns, pouring into venues filled with animated crowds so gleeful to be waiting with others in anticipation of the live music in store.
Surely the musicians, festival organisers, sponsors, volunteers and even hard-working staff at venues must have felt this surge in excitement, the buzz of many collective success stories.
Yet as we revelled in the opportunities ahead, out there in the real world there was a sack o’ woe. Floods, climate, covid-19 (still taking lives), war, oppression, suffering … the sack was bulging, the list of woes seemingly endless.
It was surely apt, then, that the fourth leader of the festival’s Take Note gender equity initiative, Flora Carbo, in her opening night concert entitled “Ecosystem” at The Jazzlab, utilised three vocalists (Merinda Dias-Jayasinha, Mel Taylor and Hannah McKittrick) along with three saxophonists (Carbo, Bernard Alexander and Zac O’Connell) to explore pop duo Sylvan Esso’s question, “How can I be moved when everything is moving?” This could have been a cry from a generation facing overwhelming change.
Drawing on field recordings of sounds gathered during 2021 city lockdowns, the commissioned work had the atypical sextet line-up take us on a texturally rich journey through soundscapes created by the pulsing and swelling of vocal and reed instruments and amplifying the clacking sounds of saxophone keys being released, along with fragmentary lyrics, such as the evocative query, “Why have I stopped looking?”
Amid the bustle and unrest, Ecosystem seemed to be inviting us to be present and possibly to escape the troubled treadmills in our lives.
Another, sobering, perspective on a sack o’ woe came on the festival’s final night in the intimate setting of The Salon at Melbourne Recital Centre in the Australian Art Orchestra’s First Nations Residency Commission.
In a profoundly evocative composition about whales (Moriyawa) and utilising Dhurga language, composer Brenda Gifford strongly voiced Indigenous hurts, speaking these stark words: “Colonisation. War. Loss. Massacres. Loss. Loss.” Her work featured the powerful presence of Joe Brown McLeod – in quietly spoken language, mouth whistles, on didjeridoo and clapsticks – tapping deeply into this country’s ancient past and First Nations peoples connections to Moriyawa.
This was an important message of truth-telling as the nation takes tentative steps towards an Indigenous Voice to Parliament and to treaty, as well as being an immersive experience of the Moriyawa world, ably conveyed by AAO members, in particular Reuben Lewis on trumpet and electronics, and Aviva Endean on bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet and a simple length of black pipe.
In the main auditorium at MRC on 19 October, composer Jeremy Rose’s work “Disruption! The Voice of Drums” was ground-breaking in concept and monumental in scale, placing extraordinary drummers Chloe Kim and her mentor Simon Barker at the front of Earshift Orchestra members on stage to showcase “the power of the drum in disruption, protest, ceremony and healing”.
On three screens above the musicians, Rachel Peachey and Paul Mosig delivered live feeds of images showing protesters, their banners, police responding with force and tear gas, candle-lit vigils and other global challenges of 2020.
It’s impossible to convey the breadth of this musical experience in a few words, but what stood out was the restraint – for the most part – in instruments usually given prominence, and the sheer brilliance of Kim and Barker in delivering drum kit work so varied, finessed and controlled. This was not crash and bash drumming.
Highlights from other orchestra members included the fat, warm trumpet notes of Tom Avgenicos, splendidly bent and raspy in the lower registers, and guitarist Hilary Geddes shredding an array of angular, exciting sounds.
Images were integral to two other MIJF outings demonstrating a welcome willingness by the festival to be adventurous. In both concerts audiences who were not necessarily lovers of jazz or improvisation were treated to exemplary music in unusual and enticing settings.
Dan Tepfer’s “Natural Machines”, aired at The Melbourne Planetarium, Scienceworks in four concerts over two nights, was an absolute standout. Tepfer programmed a Yamaha Disklavier grand piano to respond in real time to his improvisations, allowing us to watch fascinated as keys were played alongside those he was pressing. As well, he created algorithms that translated this jointly created music into visual art projected on the dome of the planetarium.
MIJF CEO and program director Hadley Agrez said this project had taken three years to develop. It was worth the wait.
This concert was a musical as well as a visual delight. Tepfer took us on a journey through counterpoint, canon and fugue, frequencies, fractals, harmonies, intervals (just rhythms – the building blocks of music) and pitches, as well as the ratios of orbiting bodies in space. Meanwhile, lying almost horizontal in our seats, we smiled (well, I did) as abstract and beautiful images slid across our sky, at times streaming towards an image of Tepfer’s hands on the piano keyboard.
Screened images and live music were combined superbly at Darebin Arts Centre on 21 October in a celebration of iconic silent films by Georges Melies. Entitled “The Merry Frolics of Melies”, this outing paired a perfect band with eight short films – including the well known Trip to the Moon – full of magic, fun, slapstick and satirical humour, and the wistful sadness that melodrama does so well.
Composer/saxophonist Phillip Johnston wrote the scores played live to a packed auditorium by this ensemble with Alister Spence piano, Daryl Pratt vibraphone and Lloyd Swanton double bass. Not only were the films appealing and instructive about early cinematic inventiveness, but the variations in styles of music, tempos and use of instruments to sync with the rapid changes on screen were wonderful.
There were no visuals other than those conjured in our minds when drummer Francesca Remigi (Italy) unleashed her compositions on The Jazzlab audience on 15 October with the help of Federico Calcagno (Italy, bass clarinet and clarinet) and three Australian musicians she had met in workshops at Banff, Canada in 2019 – Niran Dasika (trumpet, pocket trumpet), Andrew Saragossi (saxophones) and Helen Svoboda (double bass).
In pieces drawn from two of her albums – Il Labirinto Dei Topi (The Rat’s Labyrinth) and The Human Web – and inspired by thought-provoking explorations of social dysfunction and decadence, along with the negative effects of social media, Remigi led the quintet in an intense and utterly engrossing set that was a clear festival highlight.
Voice-overs and sound grabs added to mayhem that evoked conflict, anguish and pain, yet also some eventual relief. Horns were percussive, the double bass tapping higher and then deeply resonant lower chords, and drama mingled with gentle chaos. In the closing Gomorra, Remigi’s drums melded seamlessly with Dasika’s horn. It was a brilliant set.
It was probably not ideal to hear Sydney quartet Tangents so soon afterwards as they aired material from their 2021 release Timeslips & Chimeras, because they delivered slow growth, evolution and a sense of timelessness in their pieces. Evan Dorrian was excellent on drums and percussion, while Peter Hollo’s cello added depth as the music ebbed and flowed, yet never built tension.
Changes were key to the music aired the following night at The Jazzlab in which award-winning Sydney guitarist Hilary Geddes led a quartet with Matthew Harris piano, Helen Svoboda (omnipresent in this festival) bass and Alexander Inman-Hislop drums to play compositions from her debut album Parkside (ABC Jazz).
This outing was a definite festival highlight, in part because of the band’s ability to adjust tempo, dynamics and mood within songs and also because these musicians were having so much fun while performing. Their mood was infectious. Geddes entranced the crowd with a solo in an unusual, but beautiful ending to a fabulous concert.
Later, at 9.30pm, forceful drummer Pheroan akLaff (USA) was teamed with Sunny Kim (South Korea) on vocals, Mike Nock on piano, Peter Farrar on saxophone and Helen Svoboda on bass in what seemed an unequal battle. The clear, pure Kim vocals were often lost amid the onslaught of akLaff’s ferocity at the kit and the result was at times more akin to a spectator sport. Many in the audience no doubt loved such full-on playing from the virtuosic akLaff and Farrar’s matching reed retorts, and Nock’s energy was amazing, but full tilt is best in small doses (my view only).
The most enjoyable piece in the set was the closing Andrew Hill composition Gone to Say Goodnight.
Mike Nock returned to the piano – tuning troubles notwithstanding – the following night to revisit his much-loved 1982 album Ondas (ECM) recorded in Oslo with Eddie Gomex on bass and Jon Christensen drums. In two concerts at The Jazzlab he was joined by emerging talents Jacques Emery and Chloe Kim.
From the long and engrossing opening piece Forgotten Love, Nock was unsurprisingly superb, while uncharacteristically referring to charts due to the passing of time since the album’s release. There is such clarity, space and sense of unhurried propulsion in this album, so it was a delight to hear the master deliver it live.
I am happy to be contradicted, but there didn’t always seem to be complete understanding early on by Emery and Kim about when it was best to intervene. Perhaps I was longing for a repeat of interactions on the recording that seemed so perfect. But as the set progressed the trio seemed better integrated. This outing was a treat.
Another was in store the following night. Sydney bassist Jonathan Zwartz introduced his work, Suite Suomi, written for harpist and pianist Iro Haarla (Finland), with a quotation from her compatriot, poet Eeva Kilpi, entitled Even Nature Gives You No Choice:
“When you have seen a cloud in the lap of a pond;
and the moon between the waterlilies;
inevitably you are at the mercy of your own soul.”
We were asked not to clap until the end of this compelling collaboration featuring Haarla, Zwartz, Julien Wilson on tenor sax, Phil Slater on trumpet, Ben Hauptmann on guitar and Hamish Stuart on drums. This often sombre suite contained so much – a pulse seeming to emulate the heartbeat of the Earth, a slow piano meditation by Haarla, a unity of strings between concert harp and Hauptmann’s instrument, a bass solo in which Zwartz took us to beautiful places, his final note lingering in the stillness.
After much that was solemn, Hauptmann’s catchy infusion of country-style guitar near the end was welcome.
This concert was a moving testament to a love of the natural world shared by Haarla and Zwartz.
The penultimate night of the festival featured two distinctly different outings. Brooklyn-based Chilean tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, in the third of her MIJF concerts at The Jazzlab, delivered a dispassionate set of material from her album 12 Stars, with quartet members Lage Lund guitar, Pablo Menares double bass and Kush Abady drums.
The influence of Aldana’s 12 years in New York showed in the cool feel of this music, with Lund’s guitar mostly subdued and Abady’s efforts at the kit not resulting in much propulsion until the final Los Ojos de Chile, which primed the audience to seek an encore – not possible as the players had to fly, literally.
By contrast, The What Ifs at 9.30pm launched their new digital album Keep It Simple in a manner characteristic of this lively and beautifully balanced Melbourne quintet bristling with talent. The band – Paul Williamson trumpet, Scott McConnachie saxophones, Miro Lauritz vibraphone, Helen Svoboda (again) bass and Dylan Van Der Schiff drums – builds immersive tension through carefully incorporating complexity, adding in blistering horn solos, texturally rich bowed bass and exquisite vibrato dances. This is a group to watch … and hear.
The final of 14 concerts for me was at 9.30pm on 23 October, featuring New York-based guitarist Quentin Angus in a quintet with Jo Lawry vocals, Steve Barry piano, Sam Anning electric bass and Ben Vanderwal drums playing mostly tunes from the expatriate’s 2022 album The State of Things.
These were diverse, jumping from the lightness of Pure Imagination and Somewhere Over the Rainbow to the title track, which took us to dark moments in recent history. The most moving piece, Mila, was a piano and guitar duet reflecting the struggle and happiness that followed the traumatic premature birth of Angus’s daughter, Mila, played over a recording of her heartbeat.
It remains only to conclude with a tribute to The Rookies, who ably hosted Late Night Jams throughout the festival. Many antics resulted, I’m told, but one of the craziest must have surely been the invasion of The Jazzlab jam on the final night by a band and guests from a Jewish wedding, leading to wild music and manic dancing that was indeed a fitting end to a fantastic festival.
PS: Thanks to festival and venue staff for assistance throughout.