jazz and improvised music

Reviews - 21st Wangaratta Festival Of Jazz
John Clare

Sunday 21 November 2010

1. Some Frightful Singing

These are the trees and here is the grass, and those are the voices again that carry softly in Meriwa Park. The grass is so green it seems to burn in the dusk. Green’s green apogee. Green fire of another planet. I come down here every year, as soon as I have checked in and dropped off my bag, and collected my media pass.

Now, block your ears while I sing my song (Sweet Thames run softly for I speak not loud or long). Here I go:

“It’s all too beau-ti-f-u-ul. It’s all too beau-ti-f-u-ul. It’s all, etc etc…On The Bridge Of Sighs de dum da dum to rest my eyes in shades of green. Under dreaming spires..p-dum b-dum.. to Itchycoo Park, that’s where I’ve been.” What did we do there? We touched the sky there, but unlike the Small Faces I did not get high there. Well, I did, but since I seem to have revisited the hippy era I will shamelessly call it a natural high, man. Your correspondent is not really a drinker and not a drug man. You know where I am. At the 21st annual Wangaratta Festival Of Jazz, and in a few moments I will head back up to street level and along to the new WPAC Theatre to hear The New Mike Nock Quintet. I heard them recently in Sydney, minus a member, but I know they will sound different here. Everything does.

The Festival is 21 and I am a week or so away from 70 and Mike Nock turned 70 a couple of weeks back. Just before I came down into the park Geoff Page read a poem about El Rocco, the famous jazz club at Kings Cross, where we both heard Mike Nock’s Three Out Trio five decades five ago. He read his poem at the launch of the last edition of Extempore, sadly. There will be more from that quarter, however.

The Bridge Of Sighs referred to here is in Oxford, and so are the dreaming spires. There was so much England in the hippy/psychedelic era: in Pink Floyd’s Granchester Meadows, in The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset; throughout The Beatles, where there is a portrait of the Queen, the barber who shaves another coostomer, echoes of music hall, and strains of India, once the jewel of Empire. And of course there is a huge amount of America. There is still a great deal of America in Australian jazz. I don’t care. It all comes from somewhere. There are many other influences these days, yet it still feels like Australia. The trees above me are blue gums.
Mike Nock

Mike Nock begins with an original called Hip, Skip, Jump. it is light, brilliant, dancing. It sounds like a Blue Note classic, and at first I think it is. Young tenor saxophonist Karl Laskowski, who will later play with the Dilworths, unfolds a poised, thoughtful and strong solo with perhaps some shades of Wayne Shorter. Phil Slater steps forward and delivers the first of the astounding trumpet solos he will play throughout the weekend, spaced, running, blasting dramatically, inserting deft soft asides. The sound in the new theatre is wonderful where I sit, although bassist Ben Waples is initially too low in the mix, but when his sound comes forward in a beautiful solo, he seems to be at the right level from then on. Brother James on drums is light yet kicking, intricate at times yet with the music, absolutely. Nock is in superb compositional and playing form and you couldn’t really ask for a better main arena start to the festival.

Oliver Lake’s Organ Quartet was substantially louder, rawer, more aggressive; exciting but somehow not exactly together. There was a feeling of flying through hurtling debris. The unison themes from Lake’s alto and Russell Gunn’s trumpet whipped and swung fiercely, but Gunn’s counter themes seemed to be blasted from somewhere else, off to the side. Chris Beck’s drums were not quite loud enough in the mix. Jared Gold’s B3 organ veered mysteriously, receded and surged. The bluesy rolls and squalls associated traditionally with this instrument were there, but in tantalising fragments. It was interesting to say the least. Clearly this was not the R&B organ band some may have been expecting. With his head leaning to one side Gold, bearded under a crown of dark curls, looked remarkably like certain depictions of Jesus. John Shand agreed when I pointed this out. Russell Gunn, possibly descended from Ben Gunn of Treasure Island, was at least twice as good as I had anticipated. An early album I have was good but nowhere near as impressive as this.
Photo by Marc Bongers

Lake’s quartet on the second night, the Saturday, was something else. Apparently they had been jet-lagged the night before. Now it snapped together. Oliver was on fire. the intricate shards of splintered notes were sharp as needles. The roaring notes were primal yet brilliantly controlled, the light feathery burble that appeared unexpectedly a pefect touch. There was much more invention in his lines. A play of weights is part of his compositional resources. His massive sound, spun out of air, swaggered out and created tangible weight in the space before him. This sound, quite dark at lower levels, bright as shattered glass when he pushed it – amber glass as in old Catholic churches – was something to imbibe, to drink to the full. Gunn was simply astounding. When he played more traditional blues and gospel phrases, he soared and blasted with shattering power. It made the air freeze. The drums were now in perfect balance – and what a brilliant drummer. Gold was just as interesting.

Lake has been here before, of course, and as before he played in the Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral. I knew how impressive this could be and I was not disappointed this time. He played, read his brillliant and often witty poetry, exploited the various spaces, vaulted and cloistered, vast, narrow and intricate, for an hour and three quarters. Few people left (there are always people leaving part way through performances at Wangaratta to catch half of another event).

Unfortunately, stalled by another sudden downpour, I held off too long and gave up on hearing another performance in Holy Trinity; that by the deservedly legendary Geoff Bulls Olympia Jazz Band. There is always a degree of guilt for me at Wangaratta. You can’t hear everything.

Let us go straight to the most powerful event I caught, after Lake’s Holy Trinity performance. This was Stu Hunter’s The Gathering. This is the perfectly chosen band: Hunter, composer and pianist, Julien Wilson and Matt Keegan tenor saxophones, James Greening, trombone and pocket trumpet, Jonathan Zwarts, bass, Simon Barker, drums. This was one of the most brilliantly conceived and executed interweaving of ensemble writing and improvised solos I have heard. A compelling force moved through this work, however loud or soft it became. James Greening played a talking mute trombone solo against the ensemble that had people laughing then falling back, overwhelmed. The two tenors emerged from the ensemble at various points with sounds as massive it seemed as Ben Webster’s and Coleman Hawkins’s (sorry about the silly sounding English posessive form, a carry over from my introduction), but with modern angles and dissonances. A slowly bending tenor saxophone note against a sweeping ensemble is something to contemplate . We know this effect from time lapse sequences in nature films: apparent slow motion that is actually speeded up. Things move in two directions. It is like flying beneath the swell and reaching that point where the bottom seems to move, to run away, while you seem to be suspended in a cloud of fish.

There were climactic tuttis and chanting rhythmic riffs. The two saxophones murmured one of these together, and when the harmony changed they sounded like the subtones of an organ. Thrall is a word we should investigate. My Oxford Dictionary defines it as subjugation, imprisonment, enslavement, but there are metaphorical applications. All of us in the WPAC Theatre were in thrall. Then we all rose to give a standing ovation.

The movement to which Oliver Lake belonged was concerned with theatre, with poetry, with politics, and while this has no direct connection to Stu Hunter’s music, both showed that jazz can be a dramatic as well as musical experience, an event of large dimensions.

Now here is another premier event: Jonathan Zwartz’s ensemble playing some music from his album The Sea, with some new material, in the not always sympathetic acoustic of St Patricks Hall. The album is an immaculate, beautifully recorded and highly pleasing essay in minimalism, but at Wangaratta, with a substantially different band, Zwartz retained some of the euphoria, but allowed for longer solos and, particularly in the newer material, opted for a more dynamic live performance. The great Phil Slater and increasingly brilliant and distinctive tenor saxophonist Richard Maegraith were out the front and the superb rhythm section was estimable bassist and composer Zwartz, Tom O’Halloran, piano, Hamish Stuart, drums (who else for this music), and the always delightful Fabian Hevia on percussion. O’Halloran is a brillliant, hard driving pianist (go to Birdland now in the beautiful old Dymocks building, or the equivalent in your region, and see if they have a copy of his recorded suite We Happy Few). Here, he revealed a delicacy and an immaculately impressionistic note choice on the more ambient pieces. This mixing of impressionism, euphoria and fiery exuberance made for a memorable and much talked about performance. Lifting it even higher were James Greening’s guest spots. Sight reading charts he had never seen before, not only accurately but perfectly on idiom, he launched some roof-lifting solos.

On my two latest train trips to Wangaratta I have encountered groups of music students, and I keep running into them at Wang and in Sydney. The only name I remember is that of alto saxophonist Floyd Robinson. “Jonathan Zwartz had the perfect band for that music,” he told me. “It had such a great feeling. It was so much fun. they were all enjoying each other’s playing so much.”

Next, Allan Browne’s second Arthur Rimbaud project Une Saison En Enfer (A Season In Hell). Browne’s Quintet also played in St Pat’s and Allan was constrained by the very live sound. Apparently a too solid whack on the drums drowned everything out around him. This is knowledge after the event for me. He sounded great. Whatever he does is musical. An imposed constraint only leads him to another area of creativity. At the beginning Browne addressed a criticism that the music – given the poet and the title – was not wild and crazy enough. He explained that Rimbaud and his pals were imbibing absinthe and hashish at the time the poem was written and he (Browne) and his two composers – trumpeter Eugene Ball and guitarist Geoff Hughes – wanted to create music saturated in the effects of those stimulants. Indeed the music often has a sweet melancholy. It is like drinking absinthe without drinking the apparently corrosive stuff, which is fine by me. I do like the idea that it is green. It looks good in post- impressionist paintings.

I am listening to this beautiful music (beautifully recorded on Jazzhead by Stephen Grant) at home in Sydney now. The ensembles are limpid, gloriously voiced, poignant but unsentimental (or faintly sentimental: it is a very subtle effect and really this is what music is about for me) and the four soloists – Ball, Hughes, alto saxophonist Philip Noy and, once only, bassist Nick Haywood – conversed in their lovely voices. Eschewing the rafts of distortion and multiphonics he produced on the earlier The Drunken Boat, Hughes deployed round glowing notes somewhat in the tradition of Jim Hall. Browne’s punctuations and textures were as always part of the conversation. Here and there the music swung beautifully, but with appropriate restraint. Deep into the suite there is a flying piece, intricate and light. Here Noy runs in liquid fire and, in relay, Ball skitters brilliantly up high.

I asked pianist Hugh Barrett what he thought. “I loved it,” he said. I am always asking people’s opinions, and if they gave longer answers I wouldn’t have to write the blasted review!

A couple of young musicians said Browne was pretty much the greatest drummer we have. Phillip Johnston has said no one swings like Browne. Another perfectly chosen band, and another example of how jazz can not only be exciting, fun, intriguing and beautiful, but also deeply expressive.

These five examples (Nock, Lake, Hunter, Browne and Zwartz) of what jazz can be in themselves made this another very special Wangaratta. But there was much more, traditional, contemporary, mainstream…

Alto saxophonist Ian Chaplin burned in the WPAC Memorial Hall in company with bassist Philip Rex and drummer Simon Barker. Another big and distinctive alto sound. Based at the Pinsent Hotel (or L’otel Pansont as I preferred to call it when asked where I was staying), I had only to saunter downstairs for an absinthe to hear the Swedish Jazz Kings with our man Bob Barnard and British trombonist Roy Williams. Also master guitarist Ian Date, who has been living for a while in Ireland, summoning echoes of the quartet of the Hot Club of France with brother Nigel also on guitar, Ian Cooper, violin and the man for all seasons, Howard Cairns, on bass.

Somehow missed Warwick Alder, whose first album under his own leadership – Brendance on Rufus – is quite exceptional, though the idiom led one reviewer to say it was nothing new. Number one, if so, so what? Two, not so, open you ears young man! I did hear drummer Andrew Dickeson’s band with Melbourne trumpeter Eamon McNelis – who won the brass competition later in the day – New Zealander and adopted Australian Roger Mannins playing magnificent, resonant, inventive and sometimes simply overwhelming in its flow of ideas, tenor saxophone (you only write sentences like that when you are hurrying to get something finished in reasonable time), and hot shot pianist Steve Barry, also from NZ, but now living here, and superb young Sydney bassist Alex Boneham (who swings harder than he?). McNelis’s beautiful sound – clear, broad, projected yet light brass – reminded me a little of Harold (Shorty) Baker’s. He played with Duke Ellington in the 1940s and again in the 1950s. If ever the album Ellington Indigos on Coronet is reissued, buy it.

The great Jex Saarelaht’s Quartet with the mighty Julien Wilson reminds me that when I heard Sean Coffins’s Quartet in Sydney last night I felt strongly that they should be at Wangaratta too next year, to celebrate their 22nd year. The dynamics of that band have taken on new dimensions recently. Adrian Jackson reads everything, even this, so we’ll see. Among things missed. The Dilworth’s, who are very good indeed. Zoe Frater Sextet, another sagaciously chosen band, with Julien Wilson, Shannon Barnett, Ben Hauptmann and Ronny Ferella. I’m told they were good and I’m sure they were.

2. Meriwa Reprise

A Lear Jet passed very low overhead just as the sun came out in Meriwa park early on my final morning. It was white with swept back wings. It passed beneath the grey and white clouds like some great silent moth. In fact its engines were whispering and softly whistling. A Lear Jet? I’m not sure. It was much smaller than a 747. It was a mystery plane, heading South East. A large plane soon passed in the other direction, invisible above the clouds, with echoes ricocheting all about. Only then, when the echoes had gone, did I notice the soft mumbles and grumbles from the highway just above. None of this dispelled the glorious feeling of being in rural Victoria. It’s time to head for the train station for the northward journey home.

Let us ride a little more.

I love the train because you rock and lurch in the middle of the landscape as if you are on a boat. It comes right up around you. You are not separated by a lane of traffic or empty bitumen on the other side. Another train might pass in the opposite direction once in a long while. It is raining a little out there – it has often poured in Wangaratta this year – and there has been much rain here recently. The grass is an unusual green in the dusk. When green folded hills, with sharply cut erosion features, draw up close they seem to have been carved in jade, or clad in green felt, tacked to the fissures and crests like a Christo wrap up. Grey sheep scatter. Hawks fly over them. Sheep-like rocks stand on the hillocks beside pools of floodwater. You can see the lichen on those rocks. Some are almost white, like quartz. They are holy, like whited sepulchres. Near Colong, as you draw closer to Sydney in the magic region of Moss Vale, before imported trees take over, there is a faery place. A grey-silver sheet of water that appears to be a river runs against a bank of grey lichened rocks. More rocks and trees rise a little further back. The water looks cold and pristine in the rain and the gathering dark. There is something unnerving about it. it is really a long, narrow lake which might disappear in dry times. it is flooded now, and as the train passes it ends suddenly in sodden grass.

The only time I get bored on the train is when home is a couple of hours away. Then I begin to wait. I am now impatient for Sydney, and Wangaratta is a year away. I can still hear this year’s music.