Tag Archives: Review

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

 

 

DARK SKY – DENSON BAARTZ QUARTET

Denson-Baartz-album_1200x The Dark Sky album cover. (Image: Alfred Schrock)

ALBUM REVIEW

DENSON-BAARTZ QUARTET (Brisbane) –  Dark Sky

4 stars*

Pianist Louise Denson and alto saxophonist Martha Baartz are co-leaders on this debut album by a relatively new group featuring their original compositions. It was recorded live at the Brisbane International Jazz Festival in 2017 at the Brisbane Multicultural Centre.

Originally from Canada, Denson has lectured at Queensland Conservatorium for more than 20 years, producing four albums there with her LDG ensemble since 1996. Baartz worked in Melbourne with the Baartz-Freeman Sextet before moving back to the Byron Bay area, where she teaches saxophone at Lismore campus of Southern Cross University and is a first-call saxophonist from Brisbane to the Northern Rivers.

The group also features bassist Helen Russell,  and drummer Aaron Jansz, with Malcolm Wood on flugelhorn.

Denson and Baartz are perfectly matched in this delightful collection of tunes which range from gently driving swing in Kingston Blues (Baartz) to the more pensive Now You Are Gone (Denson), which begins with solo piano before the alto saxophone floats in a wistful, slow lament. The album feels infused with balmy air currents, yet the toes will be tapping during Sambacita (Denson) and the jaunty She Can (Baartz). Piano and sax combine to give momentum in Cheek (Denson), and there is a bright and saucy strength to King’s Gold (Baartz). The alto muses over strong bass and piano rhythms in Lately (Denson). The title track (Baartz) seems less about foreboding and perhaps more about the gradual closing of a day, while the beautiful Murphy’s Love (Baartz) is a dreamy soliloquy woven tenderly with piano, bass, sax and flugelhorn notes.

Dark Sky is a debut album for this group, yet it feels like a completion – a coming together that was meant to happen.

Dark Sky was recorded, mixed and mastered by Mark Smith of Real Productions, and was released under the Pinnacles Music label.

Album launch dates for Dark Sky:

Sunday February 10, 8-10 pm, The Jazzlab, Leslie Street, Brunswick (supported by the Melbourne Jazz Co-op)
Friday February 22, 7.30pm – 10pm, The Brisbane Jazz Club, Kangaroo Point, Brisbane
 Sunday March 3rd, 3-5pm, The Lismore City Bowling Club, Lismore

ROGER MITCHELL

* I don’t like giving stars, because they mean such different things to different people, but the rating is out of five and that number would rarely, if ever, be reached, and then only on an album that had stood the test of time.

BEYOND, AND WITH, WORDS

Ellen Kirkwood Ellen Kirkwood performs in [A]part with Gian Slater and Sandy Evans.    Image: Roger Mitchell

REVIEW

Wangaratta Festival of Jazz, November 2-4, 2018

Music speaks for itself. That’s what visiting saxophonist from Holland, Yuri Honing – a man of few words – told the audience in Wangaratta’s Performing Arts Centre Theatre on Saturday night during his quartet’s second festival outing.

He’s right, of course. The music delivered at Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues this year conveyed some powerful messages and crossed cultural boundaries without needing the embroidery of words.

Honing, with his acoustic quartet Wolfert Brederode (Holland) on piano, Gulli Gudmundsson (Iceland) on bass and Joost Lijbaart (Holland) on drums, spoke eloquently with his tenor saxophone in two concerts featuring compositions from their 2017 album Goldbrun. These guys knew each other and the pieces well, the horn soaring and gently musing over the responsive rhythm section in long explorations that varied in energy and intensity, but often seemed darkly brooding. Honing’s concerns for Europe and love of works by Wagner and Richard Strauss were inspirations, but spelled out only in the music.

Yet words and music are often inextricably linked. That relationship can be fraught – how can what we experience in a live concert possibly be described adequately in a string of superlatives? Yet the strength in soul singer Tina Harrod’s exceptionally clearly articulated songs from her album City of Longing, performed on Sunday in WPAC Theatre, came certainly from her strong vocals, but also in the hard-hitting lyrics.

Vikram Iyengar

Vikram Iyengar in The Calling by Adam Simmons  Image: Roger Mitchell

Festival artistic team member Adam Simmons introduced his deeply personal work The Calling, part of his The Usefulness of Art series of concerts, with words, yet it was the performance by his Creative Music Ensemble with Afrolankan Drumming System and Vikram Iyengar, helped by screened visuals, that conveyed the colour, noise, mayhem and moving moments of his journey so effectively.

I have reviewed The Calling previously from a performance at fortyfive downstairs, but for Wangaratta festival patrons this must have surely been a lively, energetic and virtuosic musical journey full of colours, flavours and fun, yet also most moving.

In St Pat’s Hall on Sunday, multi-instrumentalist Adrian Sheriff and drum maestro Ted Vining took the audience on a fascinating journey that came with stories, but conveyed much via the simple musical exchanges between two accomplished players. I wish I’d been there for all of this.

In a festival that did not suffer at all from its forays into other traditions and cultures than the American jazz pantheon, there seemed to be – and these words are probably not ideal – concerts for the brain and concerts for the heart. In other words, some concerts took us on conceptual journeys and others just swept us up and carried us along with their vigour, energy or beauty.

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Tilman Robinson at work with the AAO.    Image: R. Mitchell

On Friday night in WPAC Theatre the Australian Art Orchestra presented Sometimes Home Can Grow Stranger Than Space, in which three composers – AAO director Peter Knight, Tilman Robinson and Andrea Keller – explored the lives of people damaged by war.

In Knight’s Sharp Folds, which offered glimpses of lingering parental grief, the individual words – voiced by Georgie Darvidis – were not all that easy to pick up amid the engrossing and intense accompanying music. Keller’s Bent Heart, which draws on the stories of three women, conveyed their angst so effectively that no words were needed, although the epilogue’s prayer “Cry heart but never break” stays with me. Robinson’s I Was Only A Child brilliantly drew on the rhythm and cadence of a recorded interview between a young student and a war veteran to show how awareness of war turns to nostalgia, its lessons unlearned. In content reminiscent of Lloyd Swanton’s monumental work Ambon, performed at Wangaratta in 2015, this AAO outing used music compositions and words most effectively, their messages lingering.

On Saturday evening in WPAC Theatre Sirens Big Band performed [A]part, trumpeter Ellen Kirkwood’s suite responding to world issues such as climate change, the refugee crisis and the omnipresence of the internet. As with Keller’s Bent Heart, this monumental work – comprising sweeping vistas, swelling and receding soundscapes and powerful solos from Sandy Evans on saxophone and Keller on piano – needed no words to convey drama, tension and agitation, as well as loss and suffering. Gian Slater’s vocal contributions were minimal but integral to this work, which was riveting from start to finish.

Alex Stuart

Alex Stuart performs with his quintet.    Image: R. Mitchell

The quintet that expatriate Australian Alex Stuart brought from his home city Paris treated us to compositions from their album Aftermath, which explored the darkness in the world while celebrating its beauty and defiant joie de vivre. This versatile band – Stuart on guitar, Irving Acao on tenor saxophone and keyboards, Arno de Casanove on trumpet, keys and vocals, Antoine Banville on drums and Ouriel Ellert on electric bass – delivered sophisticated, varied and polished pieces in two outings. Stuart was unselfish in leading this collegiate ensemble, which displayed plenty of verve and drive along with intricacy and finesse in thoughtful compositions.

Sumire Kubayashi (Japan) at the piano.

Sumire Kubayashi (Japan) at the piano. Image: Roger Mitchell

Another standout Australian artist with recent overseas experience was trumpeter Niran Dasika, who demonstrated confidence and soloing depth forged in Japan through playing a lot of gigs there. Clashing concerts prevented me hearing the whole of all but one of Dasika’s many festival outings, but on Sunday morning he joined Japan’s Sumire Kuribayashi on piano to play her Pieces of Colour compositions with Shun Ishiwaka (Japan) on drums, James Macaulay on trombone and Sam Anning on bass, with Adam Simmons on tenor saxophone for some pieces. This music was exquisitely beautiful, at times playful and also powerful, further proof that collaborations between Australian and Japanese artists bring great results.

I missed hearing the product of one such collaboration – James Macaulay on trombone leading the Hishakaku Quartet – in order not to miss superstars Andrea Keller on piano and Sandy Evans on reeds in an unprecedented duo at Holy Trinity Cathedral. Gender ought not to be an issue in music, yet this set of mostly ballads demonstrated the power, profundity and beauty of compositions and musicianship by two amazing women. Lilac Embers, dedicated to Richard Gill, was a delight.

Evans was among the host of jazz luminaries to perform in WPAC Theatre on Sunday in the dectet Ten Part Invention, introduced by the ensemble’s founder, John Pochee. In a spirited set that included Roger Frampton’s And Zen Monk, Paul Cutlan’s Nock on Effect, Evans’ Fortea Two and Miroslav Bukovsky’s no holds barred Plain Talk, this band showed why it remains at the peak of large ensemble achievements in Australia. My highlight was reedsman Andrew Robson’s Poets Must Keep an Eye on the Moon.

Germany’s Trio ELF was an instant hit with audiences at their Saturday evening concert in WPAC Theatre and on Sunday in the newly styled St Pat’s Hall with tables and a bar. Walter Lang on piano, Peter Cudek on acoustic bass and Gerwin Eisenhauer on drums added a little electronic wizardry and lots of humour to their melodically and rhythmically appealing compositions. Their approach made excellent use of sudden dramatic dynamic variations, beginning each piece with a simple tune repeated, adding effects, pumping up the volume and intensity via bass and expansive work from Eisenhauer, before returning to the fluid simplicity of the piano notes. Their cover of punk band Blink 182’s Down was a favourite.

Recently formed Quattro Club’s Saturday morning outing sported such an array of whistles and bells that I tried closing my eyes to concentrate on the feast of exploratory textures and timbres. Joel Hands-Otte played Bb Clarinet, bass clarinet, bamboo flute and a plastic pipe. Dan Gordon played tuba and bass flugelhorn. Mirko Guerrini played curved soprano sax, tenor sax, baritone sax, xaphoon, Pakistani flute and melodica. Niko Schauble was at the drum kit. It really was akin to kids building a series of projects with Lego blocks, yet without haste and with plenty of assurance. It possibly did not always hang together, but I loved the adventurous, unscripted approach.

Two long-form suite performances that I had heard previously and liked a lot, but did not get to at this festival – trumpeter Reuben Lewis’s I Hold the Lion’s Paw on Sunday and Cheryl Durongpisitkul’s Follow Me Through the Red Ash on Saturday – drew praise from many who attended.

One of the standout cultural collaborations at Wangaratta was The Three Seas, bringing modern jazz together with West Bengali folk music. Matt Keegan on saxophone joined Steve Elphick on bass, Raju Das Baul on vocals and khamak, Deo Ashis Mothey on vocals, guitar and dotora, and Gaurab Chatterjee on dubki, drums in two warmly engaging and virtuosic displays of musicianship on Friday and Sunday evenings. The interaction of Keegan with amazing vocalist Das Baul exemplified the close bonds formed among all these musicians, demonstrating again how well music succeeds in crossing boundaries.

I caught only part of another successful collaboration on Sunday afternoon when Julian Banks on saxophone joined Indonesian master percussionist Cepi Kusmiadi on the kendang sunda, a set of two-headed drums, along with James Hauptmann on drums and Chris Hale on bass. And I copped some justified criticism later that evening for not letting on in time that the Garden Quartet – featuring Iranian musician Gelareh Pour on kamancheh and voice, Mike Gallichio on electric guitar, Arman Habibi on santur and voice, and Brian O’Dwyer on drums – should not be missed.

Expectations can be dangerous. A restrained acoustic set in WPAC Theatre by guitarist Ben Hauptmann’s “ideal” septet of accomplished musicians was not what I had anticipated. It was a great line-up – Arne Hanna and Franco Raggatt on guitar, Harry Sutherland on piano, festival co-programmer Zoe Hauptmann on bass, James Hauptmann on drums and Evan Mannell on percussion – and there was no denying their musicianship, but selections played seemed more akin to French folk than jazz, and the pieces did not vary greatly.

I had no idea what to expect from the only US band, FORQ, which comprises Henry Hey on keyboards, Chris McQueen on guitar, Jason “JT” Thomas on drums and Kevin Scott on electric bass. In their final outing of two at the festival on Sunday night in WPAC Theatre they delivered an energetic rock-infused set, but nothing to rival the work of popular Snarky Puppy, of which McQueen is a member.

The fully pumped Orszaczky Budget Orchestra, fronted by Tina Harrod and Darren Percival on vocals, closed out the festival in St Pat’s Hall with a set so loud that I sought relief for my ears towards the back. I liked the setting of “Club St Pat’s” but missed the final night jam where musicians and fans mingled and celebrated music performed and music enjoyed.

To sum up in words what often speaks for itself, the eclectic mix of improvised music at 2018’s festival again delivered plenty to satisfy fans, again on a limited budget and this time without big internationally renowned names or a lot from the American songbook. Culturally diverse offerings worked well, as did the significant European contributions.

Some new, festival-initiated collaborations between visiting and Australian artists would have been icing on the cake.

Words were important in some instances, and the forceful messages of “concept-based” concerts by the AAO and Sirens will play on in my mind for some time.

ROGER MITCHELL

More images of the festival will be posted when time permits.