Brisbane International Jazz Festival 2015

Ian Patterson By

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Nor was moving from gig to gig much of a bind. A free ferry service crosses the river regularly and there are more bridges—road, rail and pedestrian—than you could shake a stick at. Even walking from the afternoon's free gigs in Queens Street Mall across the iconic, cantilevered Story Bridge to the main evening venue, the Queensland Cultural Centre, took only twenty minutes.

Rohan Somasekeran & Helen Svoboda

A feature of BIJF 2015 was the daily free gig held in the foyer of the Queensland Multicultural Centre Auditorium prior to the main event. Pianist/keyboardist Rohan Somasekeran and Helen Svoboda played a swinging set of standards and originals steeped in the blues to a small but captive audience. The pair play together in Somasekeran's quintet and trio and are regulars on the Brisbane jazz scene.

There was an obvious empathy in their interaction during a set based on the time-honored jazz tradition of melodic heads, bass ostinatos, bluesy improvisations and, above all, swing. The highlight of an impressive set was an original take on John Coltrane's "Naima," with Svoboda maintaining an infectious ostinato as Somasekeran gradually embellished the famous melody to carve out a flowing solo that balanced invention with a lovely sense of space. Svoboda also impressed as a melodic soloist but it was the duo's intuitive interplay that really seduced.

Beradi, Foran, Karlen

The trio of Kristin Beradi, Sean Foran and Rafael Karlen represents some of the finest Australian jazz talent to have emerged in recent years. Beradi won the Montreux Jazz Festival's International Vocal Competition in 2006 and a Bell Award for If You Were There (Pinnacles Music, 2009), with guitarist James Sherlock. Foran's long-standing trio Trichotomy has garnered international acclaim for albums such as Variations (Naim Label, 2009) and Fact Finding Mission (Naim Label, 2013). Karlen is emerging as a composer of note following the release of the jazz-cum-string quartet suite The Sweetness of Things Half Remembered (Pinnacles Music, 2014).

The music for this concert was specially commissioned to commemorate the centenary of the ANZAC soldiers in the battle of Gallipoli. The combined Australian and New Zealand forces—actually a multi-national force—lost many thousands of soldiers in the eight month campaign aimed at toppling Constantinople. The battle has strong politico-cultural resonance to this day in Australia, New Zealand and modern day Turkey alike.

A recording of the music—completed a day before its live premiere—was made with support from the ANZAC Centenary Fund, which must have influenced the approach taken to the writing. As Karlen later explained, the musicians had no desire to glorify war and so opted instead to humanize the soldiers who lost their lives or were injured. To this end, the musicians researched State archives housing letters, journals and postcards written by the soldiers and their families, and translated the themes of fear, hope, separation and loss into new music.

Berardi's gently lilting wordless vocal was the centrepiece of the plaintive opening number, a song inspired by the fact that the Australian government of the day paid compensation to parents for sons lost in the conflict but not for daughters lost, most of whom worked as nurses aboard hospital ships -some perishing in torpedo attacks.

Arresting was the unison vocal and saxophone intro to "I Picture You," a song whose yearning lyricism was punctuated by Foran's searching solo. Likewise, the bare bones architecture of "Broken Landscape" stemmed from Baradi and Karlen's ethereal melodic lines, though this delicate lament was most emotive when all three voices intertwined. Percussionist John Parker brought patches of rhythmic impetus to a couple of tunes on cajon, buoying Karlen's ruminative tenor exploration on the first, and lending deft brushes to the delightfully mellifluous latter tune.

A darker hued song of sombre lyric and melancholy delivery altered the atmosphere significantly. The striking "For How Long?," which ebbed and flowed, brought Foran and Karlen together in animated dialog—with Parker on frame drum—and concluded with Baradi's improvisation riding the music's waves.

The music was perhaps a little one-dimensional dynamically, though the time limits of the set meant the trio couldn't perform the entire album, which may have made a difference. Still, the lyricism, emotive content and refined interplay in the performance suggested that Beradi, Foran and Karlen's forthcoming album will be worth checking out.

Tod Gustavsen Quartet

Tord Gustavsen has been a prominent jazz figure on the global stage since Changing Places (ECM 2003) announced the arrival of a significant new voice. It's a voice that has grown with each subsequent release, (six in total for ECM) arguably positioning Gustavsen as the most influential European jazz pianist since Esbjorn Svensson.

For this Brisbane performance, Gustavsen presented music from across his career, with new music thrown into the mix. The set began with two compositions from Restored, Returned (ECM, 2009): "The Child Within" saw impressionistic piano—rumbling low end and icy high end simultaneously—gave way to Tore Brunborg's introspective soprano melody; seamlessly, the quartet gravitated into "The Gaze," a brooding Middle Eastern slow burner where damped piano strings combined with Sigurd Hole's arco and Jarle Vespestad's simmering percussion to underpin Brunborg's coiled tenor lines.

"Right There"—one of few tracks from Gutavsen's most recent recording, Extended Circle (ECM, 2014)—morphed from blues-tinged folksy balladry into a rhythmically cantering Arabesque exploration with Brunborg's assertive tenor lines to the fore. The up-beat "Draw Near" featured a patiently constructed Gustavsen solo that, once in full flow, brimmed with gospel blues. "That was the closest I've ever come to playing a happy song," quipped the pianist before presenting a mellifluous new composition that housed Gustavsen's trademark lyricism, space and subtle group dynamics, framing Hole's achingly beautiful bass solo to perfection.

"Devotion," originally written as a mass for a choir, juxtaposed hymnal lyricism and moody gravitas. Tinkling piano motifs of an Eastern hue, gravely yearning saxophone, deep arco drone and rumbling mallets gathered like storm clouds before Gustavsen, accompanied by bass and brushes, teased out a delicate blues hymn.

The traditional Norwegian hymn "Eg Veit I Himmerik Ei Borg (I Know a Castle in Heaven")" picked up where "Devotion" left off, with Brunborg leading a majestic Coltranesque incantation of collective intensity. A standing ovation greeted the quartet, who encored with "On Every Corner"; Brunborg and Gustavsen were at their seductive best on this bewitchingly melancholic ballad.

There was a late-night gig and jam session on at Papa Jack's in Fortitude Valley, but after such a spellbinding concert as that given by the Tord Gustavsen Quartet, going on to something else seemed somehow superfluous.

Day Four

Saturday got under way with The Enthusiastic Musician's Orchestra at the Queens Street Mall. This was effectively a warm-up gig for its headlining slot the following evening. It was only possible to snatch a little of EMO's gig before heading off to the Queensland Multicultural Centre to catch an early afternoon gig.

Angela Davis & Steve Newcomb

Two Australians who have studied and worked in New York, saxophonist Angela Davis and pianist Steve Newcomb united on home soil for what was certainly the most intimate gig of BIJF 2015. Davis' debut as leader, The Art of the Melody (Self Produced, 2013) was aptly titled, as the saxophonist demonstrated from the opening number "Consentia" her ability to weave a continuously evolving melodic improvisation. Newcomb, following suit, was equally adept in that department.

Inevitably, given the reduced instrumentation, the heads were generally followed by one solo then another, but at no time did the format grow stale—testament to the duo's creativity. With impeccable timing and a pronounced sense of rhythm it was almost possible to imagine a walking bass and hi-hat on the swinging "Forty One St. Nich," one of two songs that featured Kristin Beradi. The singer brought harmonic depth and improvisational flare to this song and Thad Jones's pretty ditty "Lady Luck."

Whether at medium/fast tempos, as on "A Thousand Feet From Bergen Street" or the more relaxed pace of "Waltz for Nola" and James Taylor's "Sweet Baby Jane," Davis' clean, mellifluous lines evoked the great Lee Konitz. Davis has studied with Konitz and paid direct tribute to him with a nippy version of his Charlie Parker-esque tune "Subconscious Lee" and—perhaps with indirect tribute—closed a delightful set with a caressing interpretation of the 19th century hymn "Abide with Me." Given the post-lunch slot, there was a modest crowd in attendance, which nevertheless was privy to a wonderfully intimate dialog from Davis and Newcomb -one laced with well crafted, melody-driven improvisations marked by grace and passion.

Hiroyuki Minowa Trio

The evening's double-header in the Queensland Multicultural Centre was a treat for the jazz purists but perhaps tread just a little too much in nostalgia for the modernists.

The Hiroyuki Minowa Trio gave an undeniably energetic performance demonstrating plenty of outstanding chops, choosing to stay entirely within the boundaries of the jazz standards repertoire.

It was striking just how close the instruments were set up in relation to each other on the stage, much in the vein of Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal's trios, though Minowa's musical inspiration seemed to stem predominantly from the former, particularly in pianist Mitsuaki Kishi's tasteful, fluid solos. Great instrumentalists all, the trio brushed down and made shine old favorites like "Autumn Leaves" and "Fly Me to The Moon"—with a nod to Charlie Parker—, shaking up the set list from its Thursday morning gig in Queens Street Mall.

The trio was joined by guitarist Bruce Woodward and vocalist Melissa Forbes mid-set. Forbes classy rendition of the Arthur Schwartz/Howard Dietz number "Alone Together" featured a tasteful solo from Woodward. The guitarist also jazzed-up Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Triste" with another fine intervention, though the interpretation was a tad too breezy to capture the melancholy of the original.

Forbes was more commanding on a swinging, Sheila Jordan-inspired version of Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You," which featured a Toots Thielemans-esque melodica solo from the consistently impressive Kishi. The quintet collaboration was rounded out with a, dreamy brushes-led interpretation of the Jimmy Van Heusen/Phil Silvers ballad "Nancy with the Laughing Face" followed by the sultry Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer number "Blues in the Night."

The final word went to Minowa's trio. A double-time, workman-like version of "It Don't Mean a Thing" was enlivened by a solo from the exemplary time-keeper Rikitake. An enjoyable set ended with a celebratory take on Oscar Peterson's gospel-laced, civil rights anthem "Hymn to Freedom" and a standing ovation for jazz ambassadors Minowa, Kishi and Rikitake.

Wilma Reading & Andrew Butt Trio

It was something of a homecoming celebration for veteran singer Wilma Reading. Perhaps better known abroad—where she has spent most of her career—than in her native Australia, Reading is a historically important Australian singer. Her career began as a teenager in the late 1950 and her natural talents eventually led her to New York where, in 1966 she was auditioned by Billy Strayhorn. Reading passed the test and soon found herself singing with Duke Ellington's orchestra.

Her Indigenous Australian background—she also has Irish and Jamaican ancestory—was no obstacle to a successful career in Brisbane and then abroad. Reading sang on television in the USA and the UK—where she became something of a national star—and performed with international orchestras throughout Europe.
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