By Des Cowley
Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues Preview – October 31 – November 3, 2014
The Wangaratta Festival turns 25 this year, a remarkable achievement by any measure. I wasn’t there in that first year, but since attending my first Wangaratta Festival in 1994, I’ve made the trip every year, and never once been disappointed. It’s an event that justifiably ranks high on any jazz devotee’s annual calendar. While the Melbourne International Jazz Festival might boast some heavy-weight talent – and I’m thinking of this year’s stellar performance by the Charles Lloyd Sky Trio – the truth is I tend to manage only three or four gigs over the ten or so days of the Festival, in between juggling work and on-going domestic chaos. With Wangaratta, however, it’s a whole other thing. Away from my life in Melbourne, and armed with a Festival pass, I immerse myself fully in the music, sometimes attending up to ten hours music in a day. Let’s face it, that’s what a music festival is all about.
It’s all the more remarkable that, since its inception, the Festival has relied on two consistent factors: the on-going vision of artistic director Adrian Jackson, who’s been there from the get-go, and who manages to always put together an interesting and varied program regardless of the funds available to him; and the overwhelming support of the townsfolk of Wangaratta, who give up their time as volunteers to ensure the Festival retains a community and friendly spirit.
This year’s programme, just released, certainly has plenty on offer, and already I’m busy marking up the schedule in preparation. Top of my list is the great Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava, a long-term recording artist for the ECM label, whose 40-year plus career has embraced avant-garde outings with Gato Barbieri and Steve Lacy right through to big band treatments of the music of Michael Jackson. A wildly eclectic musician, he’s worked with some of the greatest jazz artists of the past decades: Lee Konitz, Paul Motian, Carla Bley, Pat Metheny, Joe Lovano, Gil Evans, and many others.
Rava’s performance at the Festival has been a long time coming. He was originally booked by Adrian Jackson back in 1996, but visa complications put paid to that. His welcome debut sees him scheduled to play three sets throughout the weekend – including a Friday evening set with the Monash University ensemble – featuring Mirko Guerini, Paul Grabowsky, Stephen Magnusson, Rob Burke, and Jordan Murray – who in recent times have recorded a series of albums with international musicians such as George Garzone, George Lewis, and Hermeto Pascoal; and a Sunday evening collaboration with Niko Schauble’s Papa Carlo.
The Festival also sees the welcome return of Australian ex-pat saxophonist Lisa Parrott, who has been based in the US since 1993, when she first headed to New York to study with Steve Coleman and Lee Konitz. Her last Wangaratta performance was in 1994, when she runner-up in the National Jazz Awards. Another ex-pat Danny Fisher also returns, playing with the Brooklyn-based band Spoke, led by trombonist Andy Hunter. The other big international event will be the two performances by US powerhouse drummer Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts, best known for his long stints playing with Wynton Marsalis, and also brother Branford. He’ll be bringing his latest Quartet to the Festival, which includes Perth-born saxophonist Troy Roberts; and he’ll also be delivering a master class on the Sunday morning.
The genuine strength of the Wangaratta Festival, however, lies in the opportunity it provides for sampling the very best of Australian jazz. This year is no exception, with performances lined up for the Mike Nock Trio, Allan Browne, James Greening, and trumpeter Paul Williamson. Pianist Sam Keevers will be performing the music of the late Bernie McGann with his Quintet; and there’ll be a number of one-off collaborative performances, including an enticing pairing of pianist Tony Gould with adventurous multi-instrumentalist Adam Simmons; and a quartet performance featuring guitarists James Muller and Steve Magnusson, previous joint winners of the National Jazz Award for guitar at the 2000 Wangaratta Festival. They’ll also be joining Mike Nock in the judging role for the Jazz Awards, understandable given this year’s featured instrument is guitar.
The Festival’s blues programme has greatly expanded in recent years, since moving to its current location at Apex Park, a short walk from Reid Street over the Ovens River. The main attraction will be the two performances by US blues legend Joe Louis Walker, whose 2012 album Hellfire, on the Alligator label, was awarded album of the year by Livin’ Blues magazine. Also on the programme are Fiona Boyes, the Bondi Cigars, Ray Beadle, Harpur, along with Nick Charles and Doc Span celebrating the music of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
This year will see two special performances in the Holy Trinity Cathedral – solo piano concerts by Steve Grant and Paul Grabowsky. Grant is better known as a trumpet player, but he’s adept playing a variety of instruments, including the accordion, his regular instrument when playing with the Juliet Wilson Trio. And while Paul Grabowsky has been a major presence in Australian jazz for over thirty years, he only rarely plays solo recitals. Both performances should provide plenty of surprises.
On the opening Friday night, the Australian Art Orchestra, under the direction of Peter Knight, will present their third in an on-going series of homages to jazz greats. Previous projects have included Sandy Evans’ tribute to Charlie Parker Testimony, and and Prince of Darkness, an exploration of the music of Miles Davis. The AAO’s Wangaratta performance is Struttin’ with some Barbecue, a contemporary re-telling of the life and music of Louis Armstrong, composed and arranged by trumpeter Eugene Ball in collaboration with Peter Knight.
First performed at MONA FOMA in Hobart in January this year, the work features musicians Paul Grabowsky, Allan Browne, Sam Pankhurst, Phil Noy, Ball and Knight, along with video installation and images, turntables, and the voice of Papua New Guinea born singer Ngaiire. Six months out, this performance stands out as a must-see event. Ditto, one could add, for the 2014 Wangaratta Festival.
Des Cowley’s Top Ten Picks for the Festival:
- Enrico Rava with Monash Jazz, Friday 31 Oct, 8pm
- Australian Art Orchestra: Struttin’ with some Barbecue, Friday 31 Oct, 10pm
- Paul Grabowsky, solo performance, Sat 1 Nov, 2pm
- Mike Nock Trio Plus Two, Sat 1 Nov, 3pm
- James Muller – Steve Magnusson Quartet, Sat 1 Nov, 8.30pm
- Joe Louis Walker, Sat 1 Nov, 10.50pm
- Paul Williamson Connect Four Duos, Sun 2 Nov, 1.30pm
- Sam Keevers plays the music of Bernie McGann, Sun 2 Nov, 2.30pm
- Allan Browne Quintet, Sun 2 Nov, 8pm
- Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts Quartet, Sun 2 Nov, 10.30pm