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Live Reviews

2008 Melbourne International Jazz Festival

By Published: July 5, 2008
Throughout the fest, there was fair ratio of natives to visitors. American vocalist Kurt Elling performed an energetic and personable set with astonishing vocalese at the Regent, his band featuring one of Australia's prized instrumentalists, tenor saxophonist Julien Wilson (the previous night he was named "Australian Jazz Artist of the Year"). Elling intertwined with drummer Kobe Watkins for a lengthy and blissful vocal/drums exchange, and his "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" lullaby was a splendid vocal/piano duo encore with longtime associate Laurence Hobgood. His strong set also included "Don't Let Her Go"—a tune closely associated with Betty Carter, "(A New) Body & Soul" with a vocalese based on Dexter Gordon's "Body and Soul" solo and "Save Your Love For Me" dedicated to Nancy Wilson. However, it was Elling's rendition of Coltrane's "Resolution," featuring original lyrics, that marked the apex of his set. (Rumor had it that Elling brought in his own sound people, too, which would explain why his concert unquestionably featured the best acoustics and mix of any of the larger venue concerts.)

Polish legend Tomasz Stanko's quartet followed a sleepy opening set by ECM labelmate pianist Tord Gustavsen's trio at the grand Hamer Hall. The trumpeter's dark low-end register mastery—his personal musical stamp over many decades—overshadowed his own longtime trio's tendency to provide more foundation than interactive inspiration, as was more commonly heard with such past collaborators as pianist Bobo Stenson and drummer Tony Oxley. Their repertoire included pieces from some of the group's previously released recordings, such as Lontano's title track (also from that album—"Trista" and "Song For Ania"), and Leosia's "Euforila." His "Requiem" (in dedication to his past colleague Krzysztof Komeda), a set highlight, represented a segment of an extended suite partially notated, and partially improvised.

An expected festival highlight, even with yet another example of a disappointing house mix, was played by the Aussie trio of saxophonist Jamie Oehlers, pianist Paul Grabowsky and drummer Dave Beck—collectively known as Lost And Found. With the piano dominant at the Palms at the Crown, the group's intense drive was certainly and unfortunately compromised, particularly Oehlers' inspiring improvisations. It would have raised the music entirely to another level had the sound man been a bit more sensitive to this band in the Las Vegas-like showroom which donned a stage and sound system perhaps better suited to Tom Jones and some Vegas showgirls with its unrelenting and ultimately distracting light show. To better hear this group, their new self-entitled CD on Jazzhead is highly recommended... and well mixed!

And at the same venue, the festival culminated with American drummer Cindy Blackman's high-energy performance. At an early juncture, she kicked off the bass drum on several occasions, unrelentingly playing on while a stage crew member tried desperately to fix it. Unphased, the leader's kinetic force was spurred on by her quartet, too: JD Allen (tenor), Carlton Holmes (electric keyboard and piano) and George Mitchell (whose bass was frequently lost entirely with—you guessed it, a poor house mix). Blackman predictably and primarily played drum-heavy numbers that served as extended solos; her polyrhythmic endurance pounces on a beat like a beach ball that never gets to touch the ground! Miles Davis' "No Blues" and a Wayne Shorter- like rendition of Herbie Hancock's "I Have A Dream" (from The Prisoner, Hancock's 1969 Blue Note recording) left jaws dropped, as did originals by Blackman ("The 10th Gate," "Insight" and "All I Want") and Allen ("Peebow's Vibe," "Sampei" and "Mudeeya"). As a result, her near two-hour set finale left most festival-goers exiting on a high that replaced any frustrations about this year's fest.

Photo Credit

Melbourne Jazz Festival (dancers) at Fed Square by Mark Peterson

l-r: Sam Anning, Stafford Hunter, Cleave Guyton at Bennett's Lane by Laurence Donohue-Greene

Aaron Choulai Sextet at the Edge by Laurence Donohue-Greene

Jon Weber at The Edge by Laurence Donohue-Greene

Julien Wilson and Kurt Elling at The Regent by Mark Peterson

Lost and Found at The Palms by Mili Wijerante

Cindy Blackman at The Palms by Mili Wijeratne

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