By Des Cowley.
Wangaratta Jazz & Blues Festival – 30 October – 2 November 2015
There’s been a lot of talk of changes being made to this year’s Wangaratta Festival, begging the question: If it ain’t broke? After all, this is the pre-eminent jazz event on my annual calendar, a Festival of adventurous music that also happens to be a fun weekend. In looking at the proposed changes this year, however, it’s clear that the Wangaratta Festival, with Artistic Director Adrian Jackson once again at the helm for the 26th year, is actually intent on expanding its program, rather than diminishing it.
The major change is the addition of a new outdoor performance stage, the Gardens Stage, which will play host to roots and rockier acts aimed at expanding the popularity of the Festival. While the shift to a more broad-based programming can potentially lead to a watering down of the original mission of a Festival – and I’m thinking back to some of the more inappropriate acts promoted on the Acura stage at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival – in this case, it appears the chosen acts are in keeping with the spirit of the Wangaratta Festival.
The Gardens Stage promises to be a rollicking affair, with sets by Joe Camilleri & the Voodoo Sheiks, Paul Williamson’s Hammond Jazz Party, Wilbur Wilde’s Blowout, and the irrepressible James Morrison. It was Thirsty Merc’s presence on the programme, however, that seem to raise the most eyebrows; yet, if we consider that the band boasts the presence of bassist Phil Stack, who took out the National Jazz Awards at Wangaratta in 2008, beating hands-down no less than the great Ben Waples and Sam Anning, we’d be hard-pressed to complain. The Gardens Stage will also host a few key acts that combine jazz and world rhythms, most notably Sam Keevers’ Afro Cuban ensemble Los Cabrones; and Peter Harper’s ethio-jazz band Black Jesus Experience, who I last saw performing with legendary Ethiopian composer and musician Malatu Astatke.
If I needed a reason at all to attend this year’s Wangaratta Festival, then it’s here: the presence of the great New York trumpeter Dave Douglas. Having caught his knock-out sets at the 2002 Wangaratta Festival, he is number-one on my dance card for 2015. Douglas first rose to prominence in the 1990s playing with John Zorn’s Masada, and since then he’s fronted a vast variety of ensembles, recording prolifically, most recently for his own Greenleaf label. At Wangaratta, Douglas will be playing two sets with his current Quintet, featuring monster sax player Jon Irabagon and Australian-born bassist Linda Oh; as well as a set with the Monash Art Ensemble, building on a prior collaboration and recording from 2014; and a duo set with pianist Paul Grabowsky, which promises to be a highlight.
It has been startling to watch the rapid career trajectory of young bassist Linda Oh. She first performed at Wangaratta in 2009 with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who has gone on to become one of the rising stars of the revamped Blue Note label. Since then, Linda Oh, now permanently based in the US, has played with some of the best players in contemporary jazz, including Douglas and Joe Lovano; and has been voted #1 Acoustic Bass Rising Star in the Downbeat Critic’s Poll. She’ll be playing two sets at this year’s Wangaratta: with her Quartet, and in duo with singer Gian Slater.
I’ll be keen to hear Canadian saxophonist and flautist Jane Bunnett, a much recorded artist whose work is not widely known in this country. For some years, she’s been travelling to Cuba and collaborating with local musicians there, recording a series of Afro-Cuban albums, including 1991’s Spirits of Havanna. For her Wangaratta performance she’ll be playing with her latest band Maqueque, an all-female band of Cuban musicians.
I have to admit to being relatively unfamiliar with the work of US bass player Dave Friesen, which surprises me, given he has played with some of my favourite musicians: Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Sam Rivers, Mose Allison, Mal Waldron. He’ll be playing two solo sets in the Holy Trinity Cathedral; as well as a duo set with pianist Mike Nock.
The other jazz gigs I’m most looking forward to are: Paul Grabowsky’s Italian project, which sees the pianist team up with European ex-pats Mirko Guerini and Niko Schauble, along with singer Virna Sanzone; bassist Lloyd Swanton, best known for his work with the Necks, leading a 12-piece ensemble playing his new composition ‘Ambon’ based on his uncle’s experience as a Japanese POW during WWII; pianist Alister Spence and his trio; and local master oud player Joseph Tawadros, surely one of our greatest musicians, jazz or otherwise.
The Blues programme this year features several performances by legendary blues outfit Canned Heat. Despite losing not one but two great vocalists – Alan ‘Blind Owl’ Wilson and Bob ‘the Bear’ Hite – back in 1970 and 1981 respectively, the band, led by drummer ‘Fito’ de la Parra, have notched up a half-a-century’s playing and recording. Bass player, Larry ‘the Mole’ Taylor, who played with Heat at Woodstock, is back with the band, and we can no doubt expect some serious boogie. It was Heat after all, who introduced me to the blues: as a kid, it was their early albums, rather than the Stones, that led me to John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Elmore James, Skip James and others. For that reason alone – by way of thanks – I’ll be hunkered down at the Blues tent, beer in hand, come 10.30pm on opening Friday night of the Festival. Other noteworthy acts on the Blues programme include Old Gray Mule, Harper, Ash Grunwald, the Black Sorrows, and Russell Morris, who turned in such a great performance on the same stage a few years back.
Finally, the National Jazz Awards, which remain an essential feature of the Festival. Past winners read like a who’s who of Australian jazz, including Barney McCall, Julien Wilson, Phil Slater, Scott Tinkler, Steve Magnusson, and Zac Hurren. This year’s featured instrument is bass; and on show will be ten of the finest young bass players in the country completing for the coveted prize.
One act deserving special mention is Sydney saxophonist Zac Hurren, who will be playing a set devoted to the music of the late David Ades, whose premature death in November 2013 devastated those in the jazz community who knew him, or knew his music and spirit. Zac will be joined by Julien Wilson, Cameron Undy and Simon Barker, playing music Ades recorded shortly before he passed away, which is yet to be released. Zac’s performance will be the first outing for this music, and it promises to be an emotional affair.
Top Ten Picks for the Festival:
- Dave Douglas & the Monash Jazz Ensemble
- Canned Heat
- Zac Hurren plays Dave Ades
- Alister Spence Trio
- Mike Nock & David Friesen
- Dave Douglas & Paul Grabowsky
- Lloyd Swanton Ambon
- Linda Oh Quartet
- Black Jesus Experience
- Joseph Tawadros
Further information and tickets are available at wangarattajazz.com