Melbourne International Jazz Festival
April 30th - May 4th
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.
Browne's ensemble, playing music from their recent CD release The Drunken Boat, performed with little to no pause between movements like a '50s jazz score, though this mismatch of artist to venue would have been much more successful in a jazz club environ. Audience members respectively but unnecessarily sat on their hands silently for the set's duration as if they were attending a classical concert that was to have no applause between the jazz suite's movements.
Choulai's group, in addition to Hughes and Ball, featured tenor saxophonist Carlo Barbaro, bassist Sam Anning (voted "Young Australian Jazz Artist of the Year") and drummer Rory McDougall. Save for a thrilling piano trio rendition of a Louis Armstrong's obscurity ("That's My Home"), the set was comprised of mostly intricate originals all of which maintained a morphing energy of forward momentum. From Lester Bowie to Curtis Mayfield, influences and directions in the music seemed to point in just about every direction, with band members splintering off into various instrumental configurations, helping to maintain an element of continuous organic development within the music.
Choulai also inaugurated the daily "Jazz for Kids" noontime programs at The Edge, a series which served as entertaining, educational and surprising highpoints of the festival, particularly for the predominantly 3- to 13-year-olds in regular attendance. Though Choulai's duo with saxophonist Barbaro didn't make much effort in engaging the same way as did the program's following days' performers, he provided a model in not only being successful but quite a young and respected local player these kids could in a sense look up to and even relate to. Towards the end of his set, Choulai noticed New York-based pianist Jon Weber in the audience, and subsequently invited him up for the last number, offering up his piano stool. Weber happily obliged, immediately engaging the kids, asking "A fast or slow one?" As Choulai's set was very introspective, particularly given the age of the audience, predictably and unanimously they yelled"FAST!" And in a preview to the second day of the "Jazz for Kids," Weber performed a rollicking version of "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" in a first time off the cuff collaboration with Barbaro, much to the delight of the kids in attendance.
Weber the following day requested to have 40-odd chairs placed on the high-rise stage, perhaps the most engaging gesture that could be offered by a performer for this series; kids even listened at his feet under the piano! Of the many inspiring moments for the youngsters, Weber jazzed up "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" as well as the themes to "Pink Panther" and "The Simpsons," and such rhythmic jazz standard staples as "Take the A Train" and "Stompin' At The Savoy."
Two other "Jazz for Kids" featured, respectively, Aussie veterans pianist Joe Chindamo and cornetist/pianist Bob Sedergreen. Sedergreenwho has played with Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson and Jimmy Witherspoon opened with an amusing dedication to the historic Mary Lou Williams/Cecil Taylor 1977 collaboration, revealing two ends of the same stick and delicately contrasting Mary Lou's blues and swing-based style with Cecil's anything but.
The young crowd certainly felt the humor but also gained a new level of appreciation for jazz' unpredictability. They were then treated to Sedergreen's band of high school students who not only played quite maturely but also took questions from the audience such as "Is it hard to learn how to play a song?" And "How do you improvise?" The questions, some coming from 5 and 6 year olds were priceless, as were the answers. And Sedergreen and ensemble ran the gamut as far as repertoire as well, from Miles' "Milestones" to his latter-period fun and funky even rock-oriented "Jean Pierre," thus covering a lot of ground in the hour-long presentation. Like with Weberhe probably made some new or at least future jazz converts.
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 masteryhis personal musical stamp over many decadesovershadowed 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 Beckcollectively 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 withyou 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.
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