Tag Archives: Wangaratta Jazz 2010


Sara Serpa

Vocal instrumentalist: Sara Serpa

GIG: WPAC theatre, 8:30pm, October 30

Sara Serpa vocals/compositions, Andre Matos guitar, Aaron Choulai piano, Sugawa Takashi bass, Tanaka Noritaka drums

Takashi, Serpa, Matos

Congruity: Serpa in sync with Matos, and Takashi on bass.

I am not big on vocalists, though I am always open to being persuaded otherwise. My usual, possibly crass, explanation is that vocals can get in the way of the instruments. Sara Serpa was ideal for my education, because she does not regard herself as a singer with a backing band, but as another instrumentalist. The reservation I had after hearing Serpa in this outing was that her vocal range did not seem to especially extensive and that in using her voice as an instrument she seemed to too closely follow the guitar playing of her husband, Andre Matos. No doubt Serpa was improvising, but her compositions seemed to call for a fair bit of congruity between her voice and that of Matos’s strings, so that I wished after a while that she would be more adventurous.

Sara Serpa

Improvising: Sara Serpa

In terms of my education on vocalists, this festival had great potential. I was later to hear two Kurt Elling concerts (the vocalist as showman) and on Cup eve I heard Kristin Berardi in a sensitive duo with James Sherlock. I was unable to hear Sarah McKenzie on Sunday with her sextet at the Pinsent Hotel. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that Elling’s vocal antics were spectacular, though I did wish for less of the zany humour and more songs to celebrate the agility and range, and just the pure sound, of his voice. And Berardi’s delightful outing had much more of the voice as superb instrument that I had hoped Serpa would deliver.

Sara Serpa

Capturing the giants: Sara Serpa with Sugawa Takashi

Serpa, from Portugal but now living in New York, opened with Ten Long Days of Rain, written in Boston. Then followed Sequoia Gigantes, inspired by a description of the giant redwood trees in John Steinbeck’s novel Travels with Charley. Serpa introduced the song eloquently as an attempt to capture “the essence of being around these trees — peaceful and yet intimidating”, then quoted a few lines from the book. This was one of Serpa’s pieces that I felt really captured the feeling well.

Sara Serpa

Conveying anguish: Sara Serpa

Her next composition, Praia, she said loosely translated as “beach”. Serpa seemed to sing partly in Portuguese and part vocalese. This was followed by a fado — a traditional Portuguese form Serpa said dealt with the challenges of longing for and loving someone who does not love you — entitled S’em Razao (Without A Reason). Her voice certainly conveyed anguish.

Andre Matos

In a chord with Serpa: Andre Matos

Matos alone accompanied the vocalist for Acerta Passo, by Pixinguinha, which was roughly translated as “catch up”. In this Serpa’s voice seemed tiny and fragile as she attained notes in a higher register. Then she sang Julia, from the Beatles White Album. This was sung in English, her voice blaring out at higher volumes in parts. I did not think this treatment of the song worked all that well.

The set finished with Gold-Digging Ants, which was part vocalese, part doo-wop.

Choulai, Serpa, Takashi

Incongruity of attire: Choulai, Serpa, Takashi

All I could think of at the end was the incongruity of Aaron Choulai in his American football top (or baseball?) at the piano and the comparatively formal attire of the singer. But that also applied to Choulai’s other concerts with the Japanese musicians. Of course it is immaterial.


Sugawa Takashi

Matos was suitably empathetic throughout and Choulai, Takashi and Noritaka were attentive and careful not to take any of the limelight.

Tanaka Noritaka

Tanaka Noritaka

I suppose I was a little disappointed in Serpa’s concert, given the excited reviews I’d read. She seems to prefer to avoid vocal gymnastics. Perhaps she could be a little more adventurous in her improvisation using her chosen instrument.


Stu Hunter's The Muse

Contrasts and conflict: Stu Hunter's The Muse

GIG: St Patrick’s Hall, 8pm, Sat, October 30

Stu Hunter piano, Matt Keegan tenor sax, Jonathan Zwartz acoustic bass, Simon Barker drums

Hunter’s ensemble for the first of his suites was smaller than for The Gathering. Unfortunately I could stay only for a short time because Sara Serpa was due to perform in the WPAC theatre in half an hour.

Hunter explained the genesis of The Muse and its links to Brett Whiteley and the frequent meeting of beauty and conflict. His piano opened in a ruminative mood. As Keegan’s breathy sax and Zwartz’s bowed bass joined in, we heard the sound of rain drumming on the roof. There was an engrossing solo from Zwartz, drowsy piano, some sax and then Barker suddenly woke things up.

We began to understand the reference to beauty and conflict as flowing sax and solemn piano soliloquies were subjected to jarring bursts of smash and crash from Barker, who at times seemed about to jam the ends of his sticks into the drum skins. This was about contrasts and conflict, about opposites. The sax was so mellow and the piano so tender; the drums were so spiky and harsh.

As I left the hall, Hunter was zipping up and down the keyboard, playing jaunty piano before Keegan sent his sax notes soaring forth and splaying above our heads.

Jonathan Zwartz

Engrossing: Jonathan Zwartz

I thought the larger ensemble used for The Gathering, with Julien Wilson and James Greening, was more compelling, but there is no doubt that both Hunter’s suites are fascinating and inventive forays that are taking improvised music into new territory.


Jef Neve

Tension: Jef Neve at the piano.

GIG: WPAC Theatre, 5pm, October 30

Jef Neve piano, Ruben Samama acoustic bass, Teun Verbruggen drums and megaphone

This was the only set I heard by this trio with Belgians Neve and Verbruggen and Dutchman Samama, who now resides in New York. They played pieces from their new album, Imaginary Road.

From the opener, The Space We Need, a level of barely contained energy was apparent, ready to burst out. Tension is so vital in music if it is to grip the listener, and this taut trio had plenty, building more forward motion than Julia Gillard in campaign mode — much more.

Samama took quite a while to get his levels adjusted to his satisfaction, and that reminds me that at the end of this set (I’m reliably informed by a jazz reviewer) a woman in the audience commented that the bassist had “missed the last section of the final number” because he was “tying up his shoe laces”. In fact, Samama was bending over to adjust the feedback loop pedal at his feet. Good tale, that.

Teun Verbruggen

Flurries of drums: Teun Verbruggen

Bowed bass started Sofia, a ballad written in the Bulgarian capital. Verbruggen used a small megaphone with an inbuilt recorder, allowing him to take and replay samples. He also used his hands as this piece unfolded. Neve seemed to be conveying ease. The piece was like an exegesis — the unfolding of an idea.

I’m as open to suggestion as the next person, so in Colours and Shades I immediately thought of pale pastel piano, with Neve delivering lyricism like a breeze just stirring the grass on a sunny day. But Verbruggen scattered some rocks about to keep things grounded, lest it all become too picturesque. Neve’s playing was intent and driven, yet so tender. In flurries of drums there was excitement and contrast. This was already a festival highlight.

Ruben Samama

Warm, harmonic bass: Ruben Samama

Samama’s She Came From the East, written for his wife, celebrated cellist Amber Docters van Leeuwen, brought busy as well as warm, harmonic bass. It seemed imbued with spirit, with love — or was that the power of suggestion? There probably is a good case for not having meaningful titles to compositions.

Teun Verbruggen

Crinkling it softly: Teun Verbruggen

Verbruggen made good use of a soft drink can, crinkling it softly beside the mic, then adding percussion with a shaker. The piano entered subtly before some angular drum work and some more sampling from the megaphone.

Ruben Samama

Passed the test: Ruben Samama

Each piece by this trio was a rich experience, full of interest and possibly tightly controlled. Before the trio played For the People, Neve explained that it had originally been called For Reuben, because it was a difficult composition chosen deliberately to test the bass player, who had joined the trio only the previous year. Tiny runs of tinkling piano were punctuated by drums before the piece gathered momentum. There was a sense of fun and of humour. Samama delivered a great solo over the drums, getting right into it and crying out in his enthusiasm. This was intricate stuff, exploring patterns and going great guns.

Jef Neve

Shimmering and shining: Jef Neve

In music notation D.C. stands for da capo or “from the beginning”.  Neve explained that in Endless DC he was inspired by the circularity of life and the need sometimes to find an exit from social situations. His piano was lyrical, shimmering and shining, open, warm and airy. Again the summer’s day came to mind. There was warmth in Samama’s solo. Verbruggen added the tiny scrape of a stick end on cymbal. Dynamics and tempo were all important in this, as again the momentum built to a layered finale of complex patterns. As mentioned, Samama added some pedal feedback. A single piano note finished the piece and the set.

Ruben Samama

Tying his shoelaces? Ruben Samama

I regret only that the trio did not play Atlas from the same album. I would go out of my way to hear the Jef Neve Trio again if I had the chance. This is a trio full of interest.