‘There is no such thing as a bad Wangaratta Jazz and Blues Festival.’
By Des Cowley. Photographs by Marc Bongers.
WANGARATTA JAZZ AND BLUES FESTIVAL, 1- 4 November 2013
This year’s Wangaratta Jazz and Blues Festival was book-ended by two startling performances that testified to the strength and depth of the Australian jazz scene. On the opening Friday night, bassist Jonathan Zwartz led his stellar Ensemble through a series of compositions drawn from his recent recording The Remembering & Forgetting of the Air. It’s a tribute to Zwartz’s standing in the jazz community that he could assemble a band of this calibre, chock-full of individual voices, its depth bringing to mind the great bands led by Ellington or Mingus.
Boasting some of the finest players in the country – Phil Slater, Julien Wilson, James Greening, Richard Maegraith, Barney McCall, Steve Magnusson – the Ensemble turned in a stunning performance that set the bar for this year’s Festival. Zwartz’s music struck me as peculiarly Australian, full of light and air; its gentle, lush tones recalling summer days and rolling surf. Emphasizing ensemble passages, over individual solos, Zwartz’s compositions explored textures, colours and mood, achieving an overarching beauty uncommon in contemporary jazz.
The Festival’s final Sunday night performance was given over to a new work, as yet unrecorded, by the Paul Grabowsky Sextet., entitled ‘The Bitter Suite’. Flaunting a similarly talented line-up – Jamie Oehlers, Andrew Robson, James Greening, Cameron Undy, Simon Barker – Grabowsky’s Sextet ran through a series of complex charts that seemed to draw on a grab-bag of diverse influences, from the music of Kurt Weill through to reggae, klezmer and Fellini soundtracks. Full of eclecticism, Grabowsky even managed to insert passages of Brahms’ first symphony into his piece ‘Paradise’. His Sextet rose to the occasion, unleashing one punishing solo after another, with drummer Barker literally thundering his way through the composition ‘Black Saffron’. But it was Grabowsky who was in control, constantly switching tempo, laying down choppy meters, driving the music. The energetic performance was a tour de force. Grabowsky’s ‘The Bitter Suite’, which he acknowledged as a ‘self-portrait’, provided the perfect finale to this year’s Festival.
The international line-up this year proved slightly disappointing when measured against the excess of strong local performances. US pianist Gerald Clayton played several concerts with this trio, demonstrating impeccable technique. The trio, at its best, was a tight-knit unit, capable of delicate interplay one moment, and a bluesy swagger the next.
Soprano saxophonist Froy Aagre, from Norway, played with a rhythm section drawn from local band Trichotomy. Unfortunately, her compositions had a tendency to sameness, and her performance lacked the fire often associated with the soprano sax. Having previously heard Belgian pianist Jeff Neve at Wangaratta in 2010, I elected to skip his solo performance, though the buzz afterwards led me to regret that decision.
But by far, my pick of the overseas acts was US sax player Phillip Johnston’s collaboration with the Jex Saarelaht Trio. Playing under the name ‘Tight Corners’, the quartet explored the work of three composers – Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols and Steve Lacy – each of whose music tended towards tight, angular structures. It’s a rare treat to hear the compositions of Nichols or Lacy played well, and this performance proved a joy from start to finish. All up, however, aside from Johnston’s performance, the music played by the overseas acts tended to be less adventurous than that of many local performers, and paled somewhat in comparison. Evidence, should we need it, of the high-levels of creativity to be found in Australian jazz at this point in time.
Peter Knight, who recently took over the reigns of the Australian Art Orchestra from Paul Grabowsky, performed with his ensemble Way Out West on the Saturday. Though the band no longer possesses the incredible talents of Dung Nguyen, who left a year or so back, the presence of Sydney based koto player Satsuki Odamura has added a new dimension to their sound. Drawing upon a range of traditions, from Asian and West African music, Way Out West are at the forefront of jazz meets world music. Ray Pereira’s percussion and mallet work was a standout, as was the guitar of Lucas Michailidis. Amongst the many great pieces the band performed, drawn from their three releases to date, Paul Williamson’s ‘Blues for a Jungster’ stood out, a foot-stomping and wailing blues given a radical makeover via Odamura’s koto playing.
Amongst the more adventurous performances was the collaboration between drummers Ronny Ferella and Niko Schauble, with vocalists Michelle Nicole, Gian Slater and Carl Pannuzzo. Working with just drums, voice and accordion, the hour long piece, performed as Drumbling, explored a range of unconventional sounds, textures and silences.
Later the same day, the Holy Trinity Cathedral proved the perfect environment for trumpeter Callum G’Froerer’s experimental work, written expressly for the space, featuring fellow trumpeter Reuben Lewis and Jenny Barnes on vocals. It was a mesmerising sixty minutes, with both G’Froerer and Lewis delving deep into minimalist and ambient territory. While the performance was more Messiaen than Monk, the music proved revelatory beneath the vast arches of the cathedral.
Sydney bands The Vampires and The Subterraneans both turned in high-energy performances. The Subterraneans, whose punk attitude is generally more at home in rock venues than concert halls, unleashed a barrage of screaming sax and guitar-laden riffs, drawing inspiration from an amalgam of Coltrane, Hendrix, Marley and Aussie pub rock. Trombonist Shannon Barnett, who sat in with The Vampires, later led her own quartet through a blistering set, showing what a great player she has matured into in recent years. She made the most of the weekend, also playing with Gian Slater in a new project Un.Lock; and she could be found tearing it up late on Sunday night as part of a New Orleans-style jam session at the Pinsent Hotel.
This year’s featured instrument for the National Jazz Award was piano. Amongst a strong field of up-and-coming pianists, the award was taken out by young 24 year-old Brisbane pianist Joseph O’Connor, with Steve Barry and Daniel Gassin taking second and third place. O’Connor now joins an illustrious field of past winners, going all the way back to Barney McCall’s inaugural 1990 win. There was certainly plenty of fine piano playing on display throughout the Festival, but mention should be made of Sam Keevers’ fine performance with Red Fish Blue, a percussion-fuelled quartet performing music from their latest recording The Sword and the Brush. Keevers’ approach is so beautifully languid and laid back; he often sits back and gently strokes the keys, content to act as timekeeper behind the wild improvisations of percussionist Elvis Eljus and master-drummer Simon Barker. A highlight was the band’s moving arrangement of the Archie Roach classic ‘Weeping in the Forest’.
There were a few musicians who seemed to be playing everywhere throughout the Festival: Julien Wilson, guitarist Steve Magnusson, Barney McCall, Jonathan Zwartz, Shannon Barnett, and Allan Browne. Steve Magnusson, who just this week took out the Outstanding Musician Award in the Melbourne Prize for Music 2013, co-led a new project Acquacheta, with Italian saxophonist Mirko Guerrini. The band’s music proved wildly eclectic, with the quartet covering the Beatles ‘Come Together’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’, the soundtrack to Truffaut’s ‘400 Blows’, and Keith Jarrett’s ‘Prism’. Guerrini is a recent addition to the local scene, and, on the strength of this performance, should create waves over the coming years. Wangaratta’s favourite pianist Barney McCall appeared to be ubiquitous over the weekend. He played two sets as a headline act, one solo and the other with his Non-Compliance Trio; and he also featured as a member of Grabowsky’s, Zwartz’s, and Julien Wilson’s band.
But it was saxophonist Julien Wilson who really dominated this year’s festival, playing brilliantly with his Quartet; with his Sydney band B is for Chicken; with the Anning-Wilson-Browne Trio; with Mike Nock; with the Jonathan Zwartz Ensemble; and with Dixie Jack. All this from a man only recently out of hospital, and who managed to also launch three new recordings at the Festival. Wilson’s performances with his Quartet, and with the Nock-Magnusson-Wilson trio, were genuine highlights of the Festival.
During both performances, he spoke movingly of his good friend, sax player David Ades, who had been publicly battling cancer over the past couple of years. Wilson’s performance of his song ‘Rebellious Bird’, which he dedicated to Ades, was perhaps the finest version I’ve heard him play of a composition that already feels like a jazz classic.
Sadly Ades, who played so brilliantly at the 2012 Wangaratta Festival, passed away just days after Wilson’s performance. During his Quartet performance, Wilson similarly dedicated a piece to the late Bernie McGann, who died in September this year; and also spoke warmly of his late teacher and musician Brian Brown, who died January 2013. It has been a year of losses for the jazz community, and Wilson’s heartrending performance of a recent work ‘Farewell’, played New Orleans style on clarinet, seemed to speak for everyone there.
The Blues program had plenty of depth to it this year and, while I was able to do little more than sample it, I did catch excellent performances by the Backsliders, Old Gray Mule and Steve Tallis; not to mention arriving just in time to hear Russell Morris play the opening chords of ‘The Real Thing’. Various friends also commented favourably on performances by Charlie Parr, Jeff Lang, Chris Wilson, Geoff Achison, Kerrie Simpson, and the Muddy Waters Tribute Australia, featuring Dom Turner, Ian Collard, Don Hopkins and others.
If 2013 turned out to be not the greatest Festival in living memory, then it’s equally worth remembering that there is no such thing as a bad Wangaratta Jazz and Blues Festival. This was the year when the depth of Australian talent outshone everything around it. Even with over 20 hours of great music under my belt, I could still point to this year’s program and bemoan the performances I’d missed: Peter O’Mara Affiliation, Blow, Trichotomy, Steve Grant Quartet, Peter Knight’s solo gig in the Cathedral, and many others. Since it was founded in 1990, the Wangaratta Jazz Festival has been the platform whereby new and established jazz musicians are able to reach a broad national audience. It’s due in no small measure to the Festival’s on-going success that so many Australian jazz musicians are increasingly taking their place upon the international stage.