The 2008 edition of the annual Melbourne International Jazz Festival got off to a rocky start before the festival even commenced, with numerous headlining acts canceling for various reasons, up to just a few weeks before the festival's first notes: guitarist Charlie Hunter (tendinitis), vocalist Nancy Wilson (collapsed lung), Aussie vocalist Deni Hines, and Italian NYC-based vocalist Roberta Gambarini and trumpeter Roy Hargrove (both poor advance ticket sales). In addition to this precarious situation, Artistic Director Albert Dadon picked a curious time, just before the festival got under way, to announce this year would be his last (his successor is Michael Tortoni, proprietor of Bennett's Lane, Melbourne's primary jazz club).
The stage was set for a challenging andone would still hopesuccessful festival down but not under. Reduced from ten days in 2007 to five days this year, there were still consistently large crowds at smaller venues like Bennett's Lane to the festival's largest venue Hamer Hall (the shortened time period seemed to have actually helped with regards to attendance as opposed to the noticeably poor turnouts to numerous shows last year). Musically, however, several disappointments were not offset by much surprise elsewhere. Abdullah Ibrahim's Ekaya played at the Regent, building up the expectations of a special occasion since he's heard more often in solo and trio contexts. But the house's poor sound mix, particularly of Stafford Hunter's trombone and James Stewart's tenor sax (both inexcusably left low in the mix), never captured the beautiful horn harmoniesin this case along with Cleave Guyton (flute and alto) and Howard Johnson (baritone and penny whistle)that are characteristic of Ibrahim's larger ensembles.
And at near two hours in length, the concert moved along at a snail's pace; it wasn't until about an hour in that the band really started to let loose, leaving behind the monotonous medium shuffle tempo and formulaic solo order of (from right to left): Johnson, Hunter, Stewart, Guyton. With Ibrahim rarely playing even in accompaniment as if he were as content laying out as playing, and a frequent and distracting low- end fuzzy distortion on the bass amplification, the marked and welcomed turning point came when Johnson gave a raucous baritone solo as if to commence the more lively Side B of the concert. Preceding the "Blessings" encore, Johnson's penny whistle duel with Hunter's conch shells became the show stopperor what should have beenof a lengthy set that as one listening neighbor appropriately put it to me after show's end: "I thought it only seemed like two hours!"
The following night Ibrahim's sans horns trio (with bassist Belden Bullock and drummer George Gray) played a sold-out one-set performance at Bennett's Lane. With few moments of the magic Ibrahim fans come to expect from the prolific past of one of South Africa's greatest jazz exponents, the calculated set featured Gray swiping cymbals with such precision that improvisation seemed to take a backseat to the comforting- at-best sounds the trio produced as a unit. Though the lack of a standing ovation at concert's end spoke volumes, it was a rare opportunity to hear such a legend in the quaint, small space.
To better appreciate some of Ibrahim's sidemen, as well as many of the featured artists' sidemen that week, there were packed nightly jam sessions at the smaller of the two Bennett's Lane performance spaces, hosted by the versatile Aussie pianist Sam Keevers. Late the night of Ibrahim's Regent gig, Gray, Hunter and Guyton showed up and literally took over. Gray bounced the polyrhythms you knew he had in him and the horn players moved much more freely and boisterously around Monk and Sonny Rollins tunes than they had in the more tame and controlled Ibrahim setting.
The BMW Edge Theatre, a regular festival venue over the years, showcased several memorable ensembles, though it's an acoustically temperamental space especially when dealing with any plugged-in instruments. Such was the case with two standout local groups: drummer Allan Browne's quintet and pianist Aaron Choulai's sextet, both featuring electric guitarist Geoff Hughes. It was left to the discerning listener to shift seats to the opposite side of the hall from where Hughes' amp was set up to better appreciate the dynamics of each ensemble. The omnipresent Eugene Ball (trumpet) was also a primary voice for both, revealing a sound semblance to Kenny Wheeler or Dave Douglas with his half valve effects, growls and upper register expertise.
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