Melbourne Jazz Festival 2007

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Melbourne Jazz Festival 2007
Melbourne, Australia
May 3-12, 2007

With jazz increasingly the international language, it should come as no surprise that even distant Melbourne, Australia (an approximate 25-hour-flight from NYC) boasts the bevy of talent, both young and old, that it does. A few more-than-qualifying "Talent Deserving Wider Recognition candidates hail from Down Under, including pianist Aaron Choulai, vocalist Julie O'Hara and saxophonist Jamie Oehlers. Each was featured at this year's Melbourne Jazz Festival, a showcase for national talent and with global representation from at least nine countries (amongst them Israel, Ethiopia, North Korea, Cuba, Germany, Brazil, Denmark, Sweden), including a decent American contingent—more as ticket draws than standout performances (Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Gary Burton, McCoy Tyner and Pharoah Sanders). The evident void of avant-garde- leaning jazz wound up ably and conveniently taken care of by the briefly overlapping Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival (Apr. 26th-May 6th) that featured such Aussie standouts as trumpeter Scott Tinkler and drummer Simon Barker. If it helps, the MJF contrasts with MJFF much like here in NYC with the corporate-backed JVC furnishing a foil to the grass roots, more experimental Vision Festival.

With festival banners noticeably strewn throughout the city, the buzz of jazz activity centered more on a small portion of Melbourne (all but one venue within a 10-minute walk along the scenic Yara River). It reminded one much more of what is commonly associated with Montreal's Jazz Festival than, say, Copenhagen's (given far fewer venues and performances than either), with its events centrally located. The programming was set so that listeners could conveniently go with minimal overlap from one event to the next—catching everything scheduled (the positive end) but with no other choice (the negative side)—from the extravagant concert hall, Hamer Hall, which in its multi-tier design seats 2,700 to Bennett's Lane, the city's only dedicated jazz club (the Village Vanguard of Melbourne with its quiet policy and bar size). Bennett's surprisingly holds a packed house nearing 200 people. A smaller adjacent room fits closer to 90, though it was not utilized as much as it should have been, including as potential host for the late night jam which mistakenly was instead held at the Crown's Live, more a dance club/bar vibe than jazz club.

Though the festival conditions were ideal for the festival organizers, performers and concert attendees— particularly for the passers-by that caught a few notes of the daily free outdoor events (along the Yara in Federation Square various jazz and non-jazz acts; and outside the Crown Casino featured band Ken Schroder's Moovin' and Groovin' Orchestra) —Australia is in midst of a very serious 5+ year drought, so locals couldn't be over-pleased.

Dubbed "Crown Melbourne Jazz," the festival's primary sponsor being the Crown Hotel (you'd think you've gone to Vegas and died with slot machines, Elvis impersonators, Go Go Girls and glitz galore), their Casino's large show ballroom, The Palms, had frequent near-sellouts of 700-800. It was, however, the visually and acoustically stunning BMW's The Edge Theatre, much like our Zankel and Merkin Halls (additionally with spectacular views of the outside along the Yara), that provided for some of the festival's most pleasant, relaxing and musical listening experiences. Comfortably seating 270, rarely did this venue's afternoon and early evening shows get three-quarters full, though. And one minor quibble—the hall entrance phone really needed to be muted, not just manned, as it occasionally and inevitably disturbed many preciously quiet moments.

The eve of the festival itself was inaugurated by Australia's annual jazz awards' ceremony known as the Bells. Graeme Bell—the legendary 90+ year old jazz veteran and award's namesake—was in attendance and gave a telling speech as did Hancock, the festival's first scheduled performer at the grand Hamer (his was a pre- sellout performance from a month previous). His band of Lionel Loueke (guitar), Nathan East (bass guitar, vocals) and Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) played Hancock's expected hits: "Watermelon Man," "Canteloupe Island and "Chameleon —with Chick Corea coming in as a surprise guest at the end for an electronic keyboard duo followed by "Stella By Starlight played on two grands. Before the band rejoined and consequently dissolved the piano duo concept, the introductory glimpse of this historic occasion was what many felt to be an early festival highlight. Corea returned the following night to the same stage, performing in an as-advertised duo with legendary vibraphonist and longtime colleague Gary Burton. Recreating selections from their celebrated ECM duo Crystal Silence (1972), they revisited the title track and "Señor Mouse," closing with Corea borrowing two of Burton's four mallets for a vibe duet on Corea's own "Armando's Rhumba before he returned to the piano.

Many more duos filled the program: a threesome of Aussie duos (pianists Bob Sedergreen/Tony Gould, Joe Chindamo/Paul Grabowsky, as well as David Allardice with altoist Ken Schroder); the duo of longtime NYC- based Aussie vocalist Chris McNulty and guitarist Paul Bollenback; and the most unique showcase of the entire festival—Aussie pianist Aaron Choulai with self-taught transplanted Ethiopian Israeli saxophonist/ vocalist Abate Berihun, performing together on three separate occasions.

Abate proved to be a diversely talented performer, with a unique Ethiopian sound and a penchant for exploration as vocalist or on soprano, with an inventiveness that recalled Steve Lacy and Joe McPhee, and on tenor in the spirituality and tone of Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp and Clifford Jordan. Choulai's free stride and unpredictable tendencies á la Monk, Jaki Byard and Dave Burrell served as an ideal foil following the characteristically complex Ethiopian scales upon which their repertoire was built. With each set came further introspection and deeper empathy for this musically intriguing - and as yet unrecorded - duo. Perhaps the apex of each performance (and the festival) was when Choulai placed an oversized napkin on select strings of the bass end portion of the piano's inside for "Nafkot (Longing), creating a muffled kora- like timbre that provoked explorative multi rhythmic lines and textures. "Spider Web (performed only at Bennett's) in title and performance insinuated the endless intricacies that helped formulate this magnificent fusion, helping prove that Ethiopian and jazz traditions have much in common.

There were seemingly as many solo performances as duets. At the Edge, Burton's unaccompanied performance marked his first since 1974 (a few years, and 30-40 early '70s solo concerts, after he had garnered his first Grammy for his solo vibraphone recording At Last). The ampitheatre-style setting with outside views of early afternoon activity along the Yara served as a soothing setting for Burton's resonating vibes. The Victor Young-composed/Bill Evans-inspired performance of "My Foolish Heart and his enrapturing rendition of "Blame It On My Youth (from a well-rounded set of standards) showcased layered melody through continuous and virtuosic four-mallet embellishment. He utilized rests that urged utter and intent audience stillness through each turn of verse from Jobim's "O Grande Amor (which he played while working with saxophonist Stan Getz back in the '60s) to the bop workout he gave the Brazilian composer's "Chega de Saudade (aka "No More Blues ). His impeccable timing and tempo management beckoned listeners to sit forward, and collectively listen in with nary a dull moment for this very special and rare occasion, after which Burton said, "I probably won't do it again any time soon, though.

Solo pianists included New Zealander and longtime Sydney resident Mike Nock, a one-time fixture on the American jazz scene (you might recall albums from the '60s and '70s he was featured on including those by Yusef Lateef, Steve Marcus, John Handy and the group The Fourth Way with Handy's violinist Michael White). Nock is one of the big names from Down Under that this journalist was very much looking forward to finally having the opportunity to hear live for the first time. To my surprise, he performed solo to an ever-so sparse but quaint and certainly supportive crowd of no more than thirty at The Edge, showing a surprising lack of local appreciation and support for a local legend and living treasure (that said, his young trio with bassist Mike Majkowski and drummer James Waples, the latter who played an empathetic and subtle role given the venue's poor acoustics for sticks, played the next evening to a much better turnout). His solo program at The Edge included a dramatic rendition of "Cry Me A River," lyrical to the point of threading in the melody to "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You with an intense final arm swipe statement across the piano's treble end, and a tribute to an old associate, the late Michael Brecker, which featured a medley including an original composition he recorded with Brecker in the late '70s entitled "The Gift." His impressionistic untitled improvisational ballad interestingly delivered what sounded and felt like the most thoroughly composed piece of the set with an edgy spontaneity intermingling within its multi-movement structure.

Stride king player/composer James P. Johnson served as a musical thread to Nock's solo concert ("Snowy Morning Blues ) from another pianist's the day previous. At the same venue American pianist Jon Weber masterfully worked his characteristically strong dancing left hand into the stride repertoire of James P. Johnson ("The Mule Walk ) and Fats Waller ("I'm Goin' To See My Ma ) as well as stride-inflected renditions of Billy Strayhorn's "Isfahan and Duke Jordan's "Jordu." His interpretation of another Waller chestnut, "Handful of Keys (impressively taken by an as-impressive request from an audience member on the spot) quickly revealed Weber's astonishing speed in and ever-musical communication between his hands, layering rhythm over quick-to-detect melody. Weber likes to call the tune a "Boston Marathon piece you need 6 months of training for before you're ready! He must have been due for the run then, as he paced himself and maintained the blistering tempo from the get go! He also humorously incorporated '70s rock group Deep Purple's "Smoke On The Water anthem with Jobim's "Wave , and performed Wayne Shorter's "Infant Eyes at an ever-so slow and engaging tempo. Proving that schizophrenia or split/multiple personalities is a near- essential element to pull off what he was able to during his set of continuous counterpoint and countermelodies, Weber displayed in his strength of stride what was in essence a duo of the different, though complementary, roles between his two hands, and in doing so gave Clarence Williams' "Royal Garden Blues with its progressively doubling up of tempo, one of the tune's more playful renditions.

With regards to the featured festival groups, Chindamo was invited to bring two: one a romantic but rather stiffly performed "string quartet project that played South American and European folk songs and frequently split off into duos and trios comprising of piano, bass, violin and guitar, and certainly exploiting The Edge's acoustics wisely without the use of drums; the other was Chindamo's co-led Aussie/Dutch ensemble with legendary countryman Graeme Lyall (alto sax) at one of several sold-out Palms at the Crown performances.

There was also Chick Corea, who in addition to performing with vibraphonist Burton, brought in his group with guitarist Frank Gambale and the young Sydney sensation, bassist Tal Wilkenfeld. Multi-instrumentalist James Morrison's entertaining but over the top Vegas-y set was presented at Palms at the Crown (certainly appropriate to the venue). Morrison is arguably Australia's most popular and major known jazz performer on par with Wynton Marsalis or Bill Charlap here. Dry ice and an extravagantly distracting light show, in addition to an extremely booming high volume setting and sound mix, set the stage for Morrison's MDT (Morrison Digital Trumpet) which really took things a tad too far. It was as if Peter Frampton came out with a jazz album! The performance catered to and entertained the audience, seemingly.

Fortunately an encore jam brought more jazz and less mere entertainment back to the stage with the Danish group that preceded them, led by trumpeter Jens Winther. Along with his saxophonist Tomas Franck, Winther joined Morrison and Morrison's saxophonist David Rex in a loose cutting contest of Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee . Interestingly, Winther's solo was followed by Franck, rather than by Morrison, but Franck's much more muscular attack on tenor far surpassed the more light and feathery Rex who did at times step up with fine Cannonball Adderley-inspired runs. Unfortunately, such contrast in styles wasn't afforded by the solo order of trumpeters, as Morrison of course dexterously got the last word in ala Maynard Ferguson-ish altissimo runs and blasts and slurred Rex Stewart-inspired blues runs, revealing that trumpet is not only his first instrument but certainly the one he's most comfortable playing (that, or it's what this journalist is most comfortable listening to him play on).

Winther's group (which played on two other occasions, though shining brightest at Bennett's more jazz- accommodating ambiance) with Franck (tenor sax), Ben Besiakov (piano), Jonas Westergaard (bass) and Dejan Terzic (drums), severely summoned Miles' mid '60s quintet in tone, delivery and two-horn frontline. The brevity of their soloing was an effective device as was an ability to cease playing in telepathic communication with Terzic's Tony Williams-like fresh and incessant syncopations as the group's consistent yet swirling and orbiting center. The quintet in essence magically transformed into an endless variety of configurations from pianoless trio, pianoless quartet, the full quintet, a hornless piano trio, and/or varied one-off duos. The leader's "Scorpio Dance encouraged Terzic to utilize all aspects of kit and percussion, from bells to feathery brushes on cymbals to a South American rattle, all of which were incorporated to weaving effect around Winther's stop and go statements. This allowed for more colorful textures and developments, creating separate movements within each extended selection. The trumpeter's "Abstract Colors featured Franck more Trane-inspired than elsewhere being more in a Wayne Shorter mode (or his other evident influences of Hank Mobley, Dexter Gordon and even Booker Ervin). Terzic incessantly changed up time signatures on a regular basis, setting up soloists and offering respective call and responses to and with horns. The extended selections performed neared 20-minutes commonly, so the group's elasticity was certainly put to the test in what Winther after their final performance revealingly described as preferring to perform "without a safety net."

Paul Grabowsky, veteran Aussie pianist and winner of the Best Jazz Composition of the Year at this year's Bells (for his presumably non-affiliated jazz tune "Five Bells ), and his trio with bassist Philip Rex and drummer Ken Eadie came to The Edge, joined by tenor saxophonist Jamie Oehlers, who wrapped up several Bell Awards of his own including Jazz Artist of the Year. They moved through a suite of six compositions, and though the set took a few "movements to take off as there seemed to be a few compositional hesitations (separate compositions such as "Abschied," "Psalm and "Helix were threaded together into the medley, though sometimes awkwardly), the quartet hit their stride when compositional building blocks and themes were deconstructed, starting with Oehlers first significant solo, not to mention Eadie's loose kit approach in dissecting meter without overpowering. The leader eventually reached inside the piano to pluck strings at which point Rex, Eadie and Oehlers briefly and atonally played off the group's sudden burst of momentum. Rex' unaccompanied portion (in dedication to the recently departed bass playing countryman Gary Costello) accentuated the hall's acoustics with paced single notes that echoed through the hall. A brief sax and bass duo ensued, before the piano-less trio grew into the full quartet in a layering concept that made the group sound much greater than the sum of its parts but without overplaying the concert space's sensitive acoustics. Each segment thereafter seemed to serve as very patient buildups for sudden group outbursts - not necessarily a tension and release, but a release nonetheless. Ever shifting, the suite maintained listener interest; its ceaseless movement and structure lent itself to lacking full exploration and development, though curiosity as to what direction the music would go provided an element of exploration in itself in a demanding and commanding hour-plus performance, the closing turbulence serving as much more than the "Turbulence of the second movement title.

Oehlers, who at his best occasionally emulated a young Dewey Redman in tone, was additionally presented as leader of his own very cohesive Small World Ensemble which performed at The Palms, a venue that offered awkward and unrelated double-bills on several occasions in probable effort to attract as wide an array of interested concert-goers as possible in mini jazz festival-like bookings (if such a thing can be accomplished in a mere two group presentation), what turned out to actually be a successful strategy by Artistic Director Albert Dadon. Opening for the Cuban pianist Ramón Valle, Oehlers brought his impressive group that consisted of several active names on the Aussie scene: Andrea Keller (piano), Eugene Ball (trumpet), Sam Anning (bass), Geoff Hughes (guitar) and Dave Beck (drums). One of course has to realize that if this same band had been presented at The Edge let alone a club, there would be a very different audience complexion and turnout, so Oehlers did his best under the circumstances to turn some heads. His double drummer group concept (which received this year's Best Contemporary Jazz Album for You R Here at the Bells) arguably may have been more appropriate, however, as a much more challenging project that offers a bit more musical punch. The Small World Ensemble has a certain but casual flow, but because of the enormity of the room, the group's dynamics were more than likely sucked up and lost to great extent, with colors melded into a solid but overall pleasant grey.

Other saxophonists included Americans Dave Liebman (with McCoy Tyner's trio) and Pharoah Sanders. Liebman performed with abandon and purpose, saving what otherwise may have been a disastrous first of two night sets by the legendary onetime Coltrane pianist at Hamer Hall. But he really just helped slow down the bleeding, as the turnout was noticeably poor with many empty sections (perhaps due to opening act French guitarist Bireli Lagrene's very last minute cancellation ostensibly "due to injury ; he was, however, quickly replaced by an exciting and though musically unrelated set by Yamandu Costa who had already played the festival the last two days). Unfortunately, much of the turnout noticeably and rudely scattered for the exits as the concert progressed.

Tyner has not been looking and playing as strong as one would expect, especially given the Coltrane-heavy material traversing some of the saxophone legend's most glorious themes: "India," "Impressions and "Moment's Notice," the latter which became a bit of a presumably unrehearsed train wreck of a performance. Tyner's un-dynamic performance was further muddied by his tendency to rarely let up from the sustain pedal, a fact that certainly didn't help matters with regards to any semblance of the group's musical clarity. Bassist Gerald Cannon was barely audible, an oversight that eventually became rectified by the Hall's sound folks whose board mix was simply off from note one as if no sound check occurred previous to concert time. To further confound things, the high-crashing cymbal-heavy approach of drummer/ percussionist Eric Kamau Gravatt's (Weather Report, Joe Henderson) came off as rhythmically inappropriate. The hall—not too dissimilar from Carnegie Hall in this respect—was simply and obviously not created for jazz drums. Liebman—on tenor, soprano and particularly his biting soprano—played such inspiring solos, though, that if one focused on him, a savory if not consolatory buzz was left in listeners' ears by set's end.

Reportedly thank goodness, the group coalesced much better the following night, perhaps in part because Pharoah Sanders' group (with didgeridoo player Joe Geia on opening and closing numbers) was on the same bill, though the two (Tyner and Sanders) never shared the same stage at the same time like Herbie and Chick did earlier in the fest at the same venue.

Of the plethora of vocalists (from McNulty to Aussies Elana Stone and Janet Seidel), Julie O'Hara was undoubtedly the stand-out. At Bennett's, listeners waited with baited breath for each turn the vocalist spontaneously took in lyric and scat. Unlike many contemporary jazz vocalists, her scatting is an essential— not novel—ingredient to her style, as much as her lyrical and highly rhythmic sensibilities. An outstanding singer who brings to mind the glory days of the late Anita O'Day, her approach is as if she were an instrument herself (much like another one of today's most promising vocal stars Roberta Gambarini), frequently inserting herself into the horn section, doubling up to blow backing choruses with instrumental prowess. Not surprisingly her vocalese project's repertoire was filled with hornplayer tunes, from Dizzy Gillespie's "Birk's Works and "Groovin' High to Hank Mobley's "Soul Station," Gigi Gryce's "Minority," Teddy Edwards' "Nothin' But The Truth," Sonny Rollins' "Why Don't I," and Cannonball Adderley's "Spontaneous Combustion." Her original lyrics to Jimmy Giuffre's "Four Brothers were hysterical (basically about falling in love with four brothers!) and of course musical as ever, speeding up the tempo in the second set of lyrics and culminating with a trading of fours with drummer Edward York before culminating with an á la beyond Brady Bunch lyric: "One, Two, Three, Four?—Why not make make it Five?! Given lyrics to an original instrumental composition commonly compromise the original's tempo and flow, but O'Hara's word selection and horn-like delivery easily communicates and flows a musicality so convincingly and thoroughly that it became easy to forget many of these numbers either never had lyrics or previously had others. The set closer, an of course blazing rendition of "Cherokee," featured the entire band: Ben Winkelman (piano), Leigh Barker (bass), Carl Barbaro (tenor sax) and Eamon McNalis (trumpet) as well as the demanding tempo maintenance provided by York. Everyone on and off stage had a blast that evening, with those offstage clapping and hollering for more encores deep into the night.

Vocalist McNulty performed primarily for a small family and friends affair at The Edge in duo with guitarist Bollenback, a venue that may have been a mismatch (McNulty affectionately and accurately called us "a small but appreciative audience ). Late night almost every night, however, her shows at Live at the Crown found her accompanied by her strong US-based quartet of Bollenback, Mark Soskin (piano), Ugonna Okegwo (bass) and Jeremy Clemons (drums) preceding a sometimes jam session that was—on nights—curtailed, simply mismanaged by the venue early in the festival (reportedly Winther's drummer Terzic was literally dragged away from the drumkit one night!) The group's rendition of "I Should Care gave the standard perhaps one of its most distinctive modern treatments, starting out in as-expected ballad tempo, but then turning into an up-tempo groovy romp. Soskin and Clemons, in particular, impressively and rhythmically connected, with McNulty taking the driver's seat, delivering lyrics with an authority in range that perhaps revealed her not always noticeable accent (perhaps this was the unique draw to this selection in her repertoire in particular, as otherwise her Aussie-ness as a vocalist isn't so evident).

Overall, the Melbourne Jazz Festival was enjoyable and memorable with some unique moments as yet to be experienced in New York—not an easy thing to say since it seems most everyone, eventually if not inevitably, makes a stop here. Perfect examples are Abate and Aaron Choulai's rare and special duo project, and Julie O'Hara—one of the most talented-yet-unheard of jazz vocalists today: will we get to hear either project stateside? Only time will tell. Given the state of economics in getting to the States for starters, let alone the embarrassing artist fees (if that), it's no wonder we never or hardly ever hear what Aussie jazz has to offer—it's a pricey and LONG trip! And if they can't make it out to us given the cost of such a ticket, you're going to have to go out there to hear them live for yourself. Just start looking now for those flight package deals, and once the reservation's made for next year's Melbourne Jazz Fest '08, be sure to get some rest on the plane flight over; otherwise you'll sleep through all the excitement (remember you also cross the international date line, so you arrive basically two days after you left!).

In the meantime, you can visit the websites of two of the more popular Aussie jazz labels to get clued in: New Market Music and Jazzhead. So go on—get tempted to get on board for next year's excursion Down Under.

Photo Credit
*Melbourne Jazz Festival flags photo by Richard Dodson
*Moovin' & Groovin' Orchestra along the Yara River outside Crown Casino by Laurence Donohue- Greene
*Abate/Aaron Choulai at The Edge by Laurence Donohue-Greene
*Abate/Aaron Choulai at Bennett's Lane by Laurence Donohue-Greene
*Mike Nock at The Edge by Laurence Donohue-Greene
*Jon Weber/Joe Chindamo at JJ's by Laurence Donohue-Greene
*Jens Winther at Bennett's Lane by Laurence Donohue-Greene
*Paul Grabowsky at The Edge by Richard Dodson
*Jamie Oehlers Small World Ensemble at Palms at the Crown by Quentin Leboucher
*McCoy Tyner/Dave Liebman at Hamer Hall by Richard Dodson
*Pharoah Sanders/Joe Geia at Hamer Hall by Richard Dodson
*Julie O'Hara with Eamon McNalis at Bennett's Lane by © Kristian Laemmle-Ruff 2007
*Chris McNulty with Paul Bollenback, Mark Soskin, Ugonna Okegwo, Jeremy Clemons at Live at the Crown by Laurence Donohue-Greene
*Melbourne skyline photo by Laurence Donohue-Greene


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