The regional Victorian city of Wangaratta hosts Australia’s most successful jazz festival.
By Des Cowley.
The Wangaratta Jazz & Blues Festival has attained such longevity, that it’s getting difficult to keep track of the number of times I’ve attended; or, for that matter, the tally of great performances I’ve witnessed there. It was first staged in 1990, and my first visit to the Festival – or to Wangaratta for that matter – was in 1994.
That year I came across a poster for the Festival that featured both Steve Lacy and Dewey Redman. Lacy was a favourite musician of mine – I’m loathe to say how many albums I owned at the time – and Redman was a brilliant tenor player best known for his work with Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, and Old & New Dreams. Spurred on, a friend and I dragged out a map, and established that Wangaratta was only a few hours drive north of Melbourne. A few short weeks later, we set off up the Hume in the old Toyota; which, if memory serves, broke down every couple of hundred miles.
After that first experience of a Wangaratta Jazz Festival, we resolved to return annually. Since then, of course, a few things have changed. The Festival has grown in scale; and the state of Australian jazz has grown with it. More importantly, we drive better cars now – though only just.
One of the reasons the Festival has managed such consistency for nearly a quarter of a century is that it has benefited from a single vision over that time. Artistic Director, Adrian Jackson, has been on board since the beginning and his passion for and knowledge about contemporary jazz has informed his choices of performers and commitment to the music, not least of which is the Australian component of the Festival.
The great international performers I’ve seen over the years are too many to enumerate, but a brief list includes: Dave Holland, John Scofield, Oliver Lake, Dave Liebman, Joe Zawinal, Barre Phillips, Sheila Jordan, Tord Gustavsen, Horace Tapscott, David Murray, Tomasz Stanko, Joe Lovano, Louis Sclavis, Myra Melford, and Han Bennink.
The Festival has played a critical role in the development of Australian jazz, providing as it does large venues and audiences for performers who might otherwise play only in small clubs. This often leads to musicians delivering the performance of a lifetime – such as Stu Hunter’s magisterial rendering of his extended suite The Gathering in 2010; or pianist Roger Frampton’s extraordinary final performance with Ten Part Invention, delivered just weeks before his death from a brain tumour in January 2000.
Another major initiative was the establishment in 1990 of the National Jazz Awards, which highlights a different instrument each year. This year the award will be for piano. These annual awards have both recognised and brought attention to a new generation of Australian jazz musicians, with past winners including Barney McCall, Julien Wilson, Elliott Dalgleish, Scott Tinkler, Phil Slater, James Muller, Steve Magnusson, Zac Hurran and others. Most of these musicians have played subsequent festivals, and are familiar faces to Wangaratta festival goers.
It’s fair to say that the Wangaratta Jazz Festival provides an annual report card on the health of Australian jazz; which, to my mind – aside from a sad lack of recognition by government funding bodies – has never been in a better state.
So, what does this year’s Festival hold in store? While the overseas line-up is not as strong on paper as some previous years, I suspect there will still be a few surprises. I’m looking forward to hearing several European artists whose music will be new to me, including Dutch trumpeter Eric Vloeimans, and Norwegian soprano sax player Froy Aagre. Also appearing are several up-and-coming pianists: Jeff Neve, who appeared previously in 2010, and American Gerald Clayton, who will perform with his trio. Perhaps the standout act will be Acquacheta, a newly formed band comprising Italian saxophonist Mirko Guerini and local guitarist Stephen Magnusson. They plan to play music as diverse as the Beatles, Keith Jarrett, and the soundtrack to Truffaut’s film 400 Blows.
To my mind, the real strength of this year’s Festival rests with its solid Australian program. The Friday night highlight will be a performance by Jonathan Zwartz‘s Ensemble, fresh off their recent recording The Remembering & Forgetting of the Air, in the WPAC Theatre. The Ensemble features a stellar line-up including Phil Slater, Julien Wilson, James Greening, and Barney McCall. Saturday morning sees a performance by Peter Knight’s eclectic Way Out West, a band that brilliantly melds together world rhythms and jazz. Knight will also perform a solo trumpet set in the afternoon in the Holy Trinity Cathedral.
The afternoon features performances from Sam Keevers’ Red Fish Blue and Julien Wilson’s Quartet, both favourites of mine; along with performances by Jamie Oehlers, and Sam Anning’s trio, featuring Julien Wilson and Allan Browne. I’m also looking forward to hearing trumpeter Callum G’Froerer’s Ensemble, featuring bassist Sam Zerna and rising trumpet star Reuben Lewis. While it won’t be for the faint-hearted, it’s worth noting that Callum’s music, which explores electro-acoustic textures, has been specifically written for the setting of the Cathedral where the performance will take place.
The Saturday evening program presents Barney McCall’s Non-Compliance Trio; energetic Sydney band The Vampires; and a rare opportunity to see Julien Wilson’s Sydney quartet B is for Chicken. The final evening’s gig sees the welcome return of trombonist Shannon Barnett, who has been based in New York for the past couple of years.
Sunday highlights include a solo piano performance by Barney McCall; a trio performance from pianist Mike Nock; Ted Vining’s iconoclastic band Blow; and James Ryan’s high octane Sydney band The Subterraneans, named after the Jack Kerouac novel. A stand-out performance should be the collaboration between New York sax player Phillip Johnston and Melbourne pianist Jex Saarelaht, which will highlight the music of Steve Lacy, Thelonius Monk and Herbie Nichols. The late afternoon will also see the finals of the National Jazz Awards; and the Festival will be rounded out by a special performance by the Paul Grabowsky Sextet, playing music from their forthcoming album Bitter Suite.
The blues line-up for this year’s Festival, one of the strongest in recent years, features the Mississippi blues of guitar-drums duo Old Gray Mule; Minnesota-based guitarist Charlie Parr; and a fine Australian line-up, including Chris Wilson, Geoff Achison, Russell Morris, Jeff Lang, Kerri Simpson, the Backsliders, and Steve Tallis.
I suspect a number of performers this year will dedicate pieces to the late, great Australian sax player Bernie McGann, who sadly passed away on 17 September this year. Aside from being one of the finest jazz artists this country has produced, Bernie was both an iconic and abiding figure on the scene, and an important mentor to several generations of younger jazz musicians. He was a regular performer at Wangaratta, and one of my enduring memories remains his beautiful duo performance with Mike Nock, which closed the 2010 festival.
With upwards of 200 Australian and international musicians performing over the Cup weekend at Wangaratta in 2013, there’s going to be the usual hard choices to be made. Still, that’s the challenge of any festival. Then there’s the local food and wines. I’ve been in training, haunting Bennett’s Lane, Uptown Jazz cafe, and the Corner, over past months. There’s been a gruelling schedule of cheese and red wine. These are the punishing routines the true festival goer must endure if he or she is to truly commit. Time – and my post-Festival round-up in November – will determine how well I’ve succeeded.