Melbourne International Jazz Festival 2016
The dust has settled, my particularly nasty post-festival toothache — during which I utilised a sleepless night to write a long and meandering rave on the MIJF —and subsequent never-ending plague of coughs, colds and sinus pain are fading from memory. It’s finally time to reflect on the remaining concerts I had the opportunity to attend during this year’s festival.
Paolo Angeli (Sardinia), prepared guitar, Sunday 5 June 2016
I was unable to hear Voyage to Sardinia on June 3, at which Sardinian Paolo Angeli and Australian musicians launched Sardinian Liturgy (Jazzhead), recorded late last year in Prato, Italy. But at the Bluestone Church in Footscray on Sunday afternoon a full house heard Angeli solo, playing his unique guitar built with 18 strings — six normal, eight transverse and four suspended — incorporating hammers, pedals, motors and pick ups.
Just as it was hard to categorise Angeli’s music (not such a bad thing), it was hard to resist the temptation to focus on his amazing guitar in an effort to work out how the sounds were produced and marvel at his adept familiarity with such a complex instrument. Not until he was well into the set could I properly listen rather than stare at the man before me using his bare toes to press “piano” pedals or crinkle a plastic bag, adjusting the tuning on the fly, artfully inserting the bow to play the lower set of strings without touching the elevated set, or activating the internal motors to produce vibrations before reminding us his instrument was “a work in progress”.
Angeli said he spent 10 years learning about traditional Sardinian music “and then I don’t play it”. He likes Bjork and his eclectic output includes “the ‘canto a chitarra’ tradition (singing with guitar), tasgia choirs, free jazz, punk noise, drum & bass, avant pop”. MIJF tagged Angeli’s music as “free jazz, post folk and minimal pop”.
I liked the fact that Angeli at times used his intricate instrument to create simple sounds, as when he played only two piano pedals. I was most taken by his distinctive throat singing — far less intense, but reminiscent of Korean artist Bae Il Dong‘s vocals — and his third piece in the set, which was traditional. But his penultimate “athletic piece” — before the packed house demanded an encore — really took us into Sun Ra territory, flying through space aboard Angeli’s prepared guitar mothership orchestra. Needless to say, the crowd loved it all.
A Tribute to Allan Browne, Monday 6 June, Bennetts Lane
Ithaca Bound, Monday 6 June, Uptown Jazz Club
For years on Mondays in the small room at Bennetts Lane, drummer, philosopher and poet Allan Browne was at the drum kit with a changing group of musicians, bringing us some of the most rewarding and fun explorations into live music. Two gigs at this year’s MIJF counted as tributes to Al, one named as such and the other a performance of the Allan Browne Quintet‘s suite Ithaca Bound. Both were moving and deeply satisfying experiences.
At Bennetts, Paul Grabowsky on piano, Mirko Guerrini on reeds and Niko Schauble on drums took us on a musical journey that kept touching base with Allan Browne. Another much-missed Melbourne musician who was especially close to Al Browne, bassist Gary Costello, who died suddenly in 2006, was also prominent as Grabowsky spoke of freedom of expression, paying tribute to a tradition, musicians finding a place for their own voice and a dialogue with like-minded people. He mentioned Browne’s love of the unexpected, raves between songs and his roles as raconteur and stand-up comedian.
There was plenty of warmth and humour, but of course this was a tribute rather than any attempt to emulate an Al Browne gig. I found myself missing his whimsy, his flights of fantasy and his light touch. Yet Grabowsky, Guerrini and Schauble provided us with wonderful music that was in turn exhilarating, robust, swinging and spectacularly beautiful. When they played an all-time favourite of mine, Angel, I was in ecstasy that called to mind Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale.
I floated to Uptown Jazz Cafe in time to hear all of Ithaca Bound, featuring Eugene Ball on trumpet, Phil Noy on alto sax, Geoff Hughes on guitar, Nick Haywood on bass and — in the Al Browne chair at the drum kit — Lewis Pierre, who was to my mind an ideal fit.
Hughes introduced this suite, which celebrates Allan Browne’s favourite poem, Homer’s Odyssey, by saying there would have been no music from this group without Al’s input, inspiration and urgings to explore the road less travelled. And then we explored some of that road in eight compositions by band members. As always from this ensemble, we were taken to some dark and even weird places as well as some of great beauty. I particularly liked Haywood’s The Suitors, which set up a series of duets with the drums, but the whole of Ithaca Bound was superb.
Shai Maestro Trio (Israel, Peru), Tuesday 7 June, Bennetts Lane
Often at festival time I look to musicians from Europe to offer something distinctively different from the established American jazz tradition. This year I was hanging out to hear Tomasz Stanko, but the trio of Shai Maestro on piano, Jorge Roeder (Peru) on bass and Ziv Ravitz on drums came highly recommended by Fairfax reviewer and ABC radio identity Jessica Nicholas. She was not wrong.
I loved this trio for many reasons. From the beginning I welcomed what I’d term “the enjoyment of the involvement” of these three players. Throughout there was a really strong sense of these players being engaged with each other and in the moment. They had no charts and each piece was a moveable feast or a non-linear progression, with changes building, developing and evolving as layers were added and subtracted. There was also lots of variation in the dynamics as well as rapid acceleration and deceleration.
Maestro allowed plenty of space and at times left notes hanging in stillness, while at others there were low barrages of sound or intricate, rapid runs of notes. I kept puzzling over which other pianists his playing brought to mind — Andrea Keller, Paul Grabowsky and the McAll brothers Barney and John were my guesses, but I find it hard to say why.
A standout for me was Maestro’s composition When You Stop Seeing (Other Human Beings as Human Beings), which he wrote out of frustration at the never-ending violence between Israel and Palestine and at the nationalistic voices calling for that violence. This was an enthralling, totally engrossing piece.
Here’s a YouTube link to this piece as played with Kurt Rosenwinkel and Avishai Cohen at Jazz in Marciac 2015.
Every festival has a story. This concert went a long way to building a narrative — this MIJF was gathering intensity and going to go places.
Keyon Harrold featuring Twi-Life (USA), Wednesday 8 June, Bennetts Lane
Given that in the Don Cheadle film Miles Ahead, the only trumpet player we hear, apart from Miles Davis, is Keyon Harrold, it would be reasonable to expect that the highlight of his gig with Twi-Life would be his facility with the horn.
This was saxophonist Marcus Strickland‘s band Twi-Life — Mitch Henry on piano, Kyle Miles on bass and Charles Haynes on drums — playing mainly Harrold’s music. In the strength of his horn and in other ways, Harrold’s work invited comparison with Australia’s Scott Tinkler. The opening piece, Lullaby, started strong and got so muscular that babies were bailing out of windows everywhere.
But Harrold showed his serious side with MB Lament, a robust but beautiful composition recalling the fatal shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in St Louis, Missouri in 2015. The horn solo at the end provided one of the all-too-short bursts of wonderfully bent notes by Harrold, who mostly in this concert seemed to stay pretty much on the straight and narrow path, albeit with excellent execution. Another spell of twisted trumpet came at the end of Miles Davis’s Spanish Key.
The totally unexpected highlight of this gig came in Harrold’s Pictures, when he moved to the mic and showed his spectacular vocal skills in this evidently deeply personal lament for lost love (“Everyone can tell when they’ve f—ed up”). This trumpet player can sing. His talent at the mic was confirmed briefly later in the closing Her Beauty Through My Eyes, which also featured the only prominent bass solo.
So, surprisingly, I left this uplifted not so much by Harrold’s trumpet, although that was great, but by his vocal prowess.
Tomasz Stanko Band (Poland/Finland), Thursday 9 June, Merlyn Theatre, Coopers Malthouse
Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko was one of the key attractions for me to this year’s MIJF and he did not disappoint. This concert featured two Finns from his Scandinavian quintet, pianist Alexi Tuomarila and drummer Olavi Louhivuori, along with Polish bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz from Stanko’s “old” quartet.
Stanko now lives in New York, where he has another quartet and has, according to the New York Times’s Ben Ratliff, shifted a little from “beautiful dirges, rubato soul-ache ballads” and “dark emotions”. That observation interests me because I found the tone of the Malthouse gig much brighter than anticipated. Energy and interplay was evident throughout the nine pieces played as Stanko roamed the stage, ripping it up or chipping in fiery horn bursts (for example in Yankiels Lid) or longer, characteristically air-cushioned passages that seemed to exude emotion (Ballad No.7). As an older musician who obviously thrives on working with younger players, Stanko brought to mind the great Mike Nock as he led this quartet in which it would be great to be a bass player, or pianist, or drummer, given the space and scope for exploratory excursions that the leader obviously welcomed.
In the closing Polin, the trumpeter’s body swayed as he responded to the beat in this fast piece. Stanko’s band may not have plumbed the darkest of his compositions, but this was a vigorous and deeply satisfying concert.
Angus / Anning / Hoenig (Australia / USA), Thursday 9 June, Bennetts Lane
New York may have been the connection that helped bring about this world premiere outing. It featured expatriate Australian guitarist Quentin Angus, now living in that city, in a trio with 2015 National Jazz Award winner for bass, Sam Anning, who returned not so long ago from there and Brooklyn-based American drummer Ari Hoenig.
Aside from Angus’s compositions, the trio interpreted songs by Goo Goo Dolls, Charlie Parker and Wes Montgomery. Angus won an ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) Young Jazz Composer award and a Downbeat Magazine Best Composition Award for his piece Happy, which seems appropriate for a young man whose smile never seems to leave his face as he shows mastery of his instrument.
Apart from Angus’s ease in executing intricate finger work, what struck me was how well the guitar integrated with Hoenig’s vigorous and surely unpredictable and at times explosive work at the drum kit — this connection was most exemplified in Kinship (Angus). Anning, who has often demonstrated his ability to link with other players at short notice, seemed to find the closest congruity with Hoenig in Sunday Blues (Angus), but at other times was a little apart from the vibe between guitar and drums.
Quentin Angus is certainly a name we will hear more of in future.
Stu Hunter: the migration, Friday 10 June, Merlyn Theatre, Coopers Malthouse
Just as I found the Tomasz Stanko Band performance in Merlyn Theatre much brighter than anticipated, the live rendition of Stu Hunter‘s third suite — after the gathering and the muse — seemed to be more vibrant and less dark in its feel than the recorded version. Driven by the stellar line-up Hunter had assembled — many of Australia’s finest Sydney musicians not heard often enough by Melburnians, along with Julien Wilson — this was a substantial work. I came out of the theatre with words such as “monumental” or “colossus” in my head and making comparisons with Lloyd Swanton‘s war-themed work Ambon. Yet they are quite different. Ambon had a readily identifiable narrative that gave it cohesion, whereas the migration seemed to be a collection of disparate pieces, each capable of holding us spellbound.
Hunter describes this work as “a response to modern life, love, family, cultural complexity and the blurring of cultural identity within the global diaspora”. It is probably simplistic to say this, but because the gathering reflected a coming together and the migration a global breaking apart, perhaps the narrative in the latter suite was its fragmentation.
Despite the power of Tina Harrod‘s vocals, I found it hard to pick up the lyrics on the night. Reading them since, I realise it would be difficult to grasp their full import in one performance.
Hunter’s the migration is powerful, has playing of great beauty, yet is also unsettling.
Children of the Light Trio, Friday 10 June, Bennetts Lane
From 10 musicians at Malthouse to three at Bennetts Lane was a large leap, but somehow three members of Wayne Shorter‘s quartet took me from the complexity and intricacy of the migration to what turned out to be complete involvement and total immersion.
This was one of those rare concerts that is so immediately and sustainingly captivating that all effort to be anything other than in the moment — so as to record impressions for future use in a review, for example — go out the window.
Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums began playing — or should that be interacting — and I was hooked on the vibe. They listened, they responded, they celebrated this opportunity to work together “with imagination, precision and fearlessness”, to quote the MIJF program. And they had fun.
I can’t say what pieces they played. I can’t provide any details of their work. Yet I can still feel this concert bubbling away deep inside, like a spring filled with life. Surely that’s saying enough.
Monash Art Ensemble featuring Tomasz Stanko, Saturday 11 June, Merlyn Theatre, Coopers Malthouse
Out of Monash University’s Sir Zelman Cowan School of Music and the Australian Art Orchestra has grown the Monash Art Ensemble, which has become a feature of MIJF in recent years as students and teachers combine to present works with guest artists. On this occasion Jordan Murray took up the baton as the ensemble presented his arrangements of music created by Tomasz Stanko on the album Litania as a tribute to Polish film composer Krzysztof Komeda.
Murray not only transformed music written for a septet so that it would work exceptionally well with this ensemble, but in so doing he changed its feel significantly, drawing on the undeniable talent in the MAO. There were too many solos of excellence to mention individuals, but in this collaborative endeavour Stanko was one among many whose solos drew applause. Murray deserves special praise, but so do all members of this ensemble. Monash Art Ensemble surely provides the best of learning environments and yet delivers music that is always, to us in the audience, the best of teaching about how it’s to be done well.
Peter Knight’s Way Out West, Saturday 11 June, Merlyn Theatre, Coopers Malthouse
I should say two things straight up: First, I love this band and have followed it since its inception.
Second, when I heard that this concert was to be a launch of Way Out West‘s fourth album — after Footscray Station, Old Grooves for New Streets and The Effects of Weather — and the first with its changed line-up, I hoped to hear material that I had not heard. That was not the case, as it turned out.
As recorded in my “rave with pics rather than a review” of Way Out West’s 2014 concert for MIJF, four new compositions — Latest and Breaking, The Birds, Nine Years Later (dedicated to Peter Knight’s son Quinn) and Anthony Blaise — were aired for the first time to an audience back then. On that occasion the band, in its present line-up that includes Satsuki Odamura on kotos and Lucas Michailidis on guitar as well as guest Sri Lankan drummer Kanchana Karunaratna, played Music For April and In the Moon from previous albums and treated us to a jaw-dropping rapid-fire Afro-Lankan drumming duo.
So, two years later the band, with James McLean at the drum kit, played exactly the same pieces. I have to be honest in saying I had hoped for some new material. But what these eclectic and highly inventive musicians create is carefully crafted so that the band’s myriad influences are woven together in a way that honours the various traditions and yet fashions something new. It’s a painstaking process and this band does not often perform together — each member has many commitments and Odamura lives in Sydney.
On the night my favourite piece from the eponymous new album was the atmospheric Nine Years Later.
The Merlyn Theatre outing this year simply confirmed how great it would be if Way Out West could gather more often, play more often and keep the magic happening. If they could find the resources to tour together nationally, that would be superb.
Wayne Shorter Quartet, Sunday 12 June, Hamer Hall
The vibe was good at Hamer Hall on the final night of the festival. People were excited to again — or for the first time — be hearing the great Wayne Shorter. After finding my seat high above the stage I thought that a pair of binoculars would have been a good idea. It occurred to me that I had my camera with a long lens, but had not obtained permission to photograph this gig. Perhaps I could use the camera merely as a telescope. In the end I decided to ask for permission to do that, but Hamer Hall staff were in on the good vibe. They arranged last-minute permission for me to shoot and, as the set began, I hurried down to take some photographs from up fairly close. That was pretty special.
As mentioned in the long, rambling post earlier, I enjoyed Shorter’s playing this time a lot more than when I heard him some years ago at The Palais in St Kilda, which is perhaps a sign that I had then been uneducated in what to expect — frequent changes of direction and very short bursts of sax. This time he did not play for too long in the set, but what he contributed was considered and just right in the moment.
And the Children of the Light guys, now playing as integral members of Shorter’s quartet — pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade — were as energetic and responsive as in their outing as a trio earlier in the festival. It was like watching an organism full of life rather than separate musicians.
If only the quartet could have performed at a smaller venue, that would have been mind-blowing. But far too exclusive to justify, of course.
Marcus Strickland’s Twi-Life, Sunday 12 June, Bennetts Lane
I was fading a little, but ending the 2016 MIJF outside Hamer Hall seemed way too tame.
My festival ended at Bennetts Lane with saxophonist Marcus Strickland‘s band Twi-Life — Mitch Henry on keys, Kyle Miles on bass and Charles Haynes on drums, along with Keyon Harrold on trumpet. There was some pretty fiery stuff, including hot work on the Nord by Henry, some crash and bash from Haynes and big sax from Strickland. Harrold delivered passages of full-on trumpet as well as vocals and more muted passages. Haynes featured a little more than in the gig playing Harrold’s pieces, but I’d have liked more from him.
Strickland capped off the concert by assuring us, “Yes, we will not be voting for Trump.”
It was a reassuring, if not too surprising, statement to wrap up the night and the festival. Roll on Melbourne International Jazz Festival 2017.