JAZZ: NOW Festival 2008, Sydney, Australia

Barry O'Sullivan By

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JAZZ: NOW Festival
Sydney Opera House
Sydney, Australia
September 11, 2008

Programmed by SIMA (Sydney Improvised Music Association) and the Jazzgroove Association and now in its fifth year, the JAZZ: NOW 2008 Festival purports to be a snapshot of "the best" in modern jazz sounds this country has to offer, with four nights of unique concert experiences (read "a crash course in today's coolest sounds of today's vanguard and tomorrow's brightest stars").

With less than a half-full house, Jazz:Now 2008 opened with a praising, welcoming address from Virginia Hyam, the Executive Producer of The Studio at The Sydney Opera House. Excitedly she informed us how The Studio has nurtured and housed this boutique event since its inception.

For a festival that this year was to be piano-based, the choice of the Andy Fiddes trio was a curiously strange and disappointing choice as an opener. The opportunity for impact was unfortunately lost. Proving more inspirational was the following solo piano recital of Mark Isaacs. Here was a versatile musician who is widely known not only in jazz circles, but also for his work as a concert composer and classical pianist. A performer totally in touch with his creative talent, Isaacs is a stellar act. Somewhat obsessive at times in allowing his pianoforte to smother the performance with dramatic arpeggios, his playing remains always crisp, bright and happy in the upper registers, if at times very gloomy and dark in the lower keys. Nevertheless, Isaacs emerges glowingly as a first-call musician and performer and was judiciously chosen to be included in an event such as JAZZ: NOW.

Yet on reflection, he may have been a better choice as the opening act. After an interval, the audience had noticeably thinned out and was in desperate need of magic. The Sam Keevers Quintet was the final act of the evening, featuring Keevers on piano. A Freedman Fellowship finalist and ARIA nominee, his credentials are five star, but apart from the outstanding solo breaks on tenor from Jamie Oehlers and some fine bass work from Brett Hirst, there were really not enough solos on piano from Keevers as one would have anticipated in a piano-based festival program. It was very disappointing, to say the least, considering what a talented composer and performer he can be. Not showcasing the many previously recorded duets and ensemble works he has recorded with Oehlers over the years seemed to be an opportunity lost. The magic most certainly didn't happen.

JAZZ:NOW Festival needs to inject more thought and imagination into the staging and choice of its artists for next year's opening night. The lack of vocal content throughout the whole of the Festival seemed to be a glaring error of judgment, when one considers the cool sounds of today's vanguard and tomorrow's brightest stars. Think Tina Harrod, Lily Dior, Daryl Aberhart, Megan Washington, Katie Noonan, Michele Nicole, Becky Fox. The list could go on and on.

The opening program of the festival suffered the same fate as last year's with the ill-advised Divine Dialects chosen as the opening act. Whilst the band was a celebration of creativity and individuality, its extended forms and structures were far too long to capture and maintain attention. To create the required magic needed for this potentially glowing musical event, JAZZ:NOW Festival 2009, Jazzgroove and SIMA would do well to undergo a think tank as to what makes magic happen on stage, beginning with the careful choice of artists and event management.

Maybe magic was to happen on the future nights of the festival when the guest, American pianist Marilyn Crispell, performed solo and in a trio situation with Lloyd Swanton on bass and Simon Barker on drums. Or when the brilliant Sydney pianist Jackson Harrison, winner of 2006 National Jazz Award, and his trio performed. Or when masterful composer/pianist Stu Hunter and band was on stage. Who knows? Regrettably, it didn't happen on this year's opening night. Unfortunately, it's unlikely many who attended the first night would have been sufficiently immersed or inspired to investigate any further.

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