jazz and improvised music

Review: Wangaratta international jazz festival 2011
Review by:
John Clare

22nd Wangaratta Festival Of Jazz
To begin at the beginning: that is to say a little before the events listed on the program. In the Wangaratta Library just beyond the Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral, where Barre Phillips and Peter Apfelbaum would later give solo recitals, Geoff Page launched his volume of jazz poems, A Sudden Sentence In The Air, for Extempore. His readings from the book were accompanied by superb young bassist Alex Boneham, who mightily impressed the great Melbourne drummer Ted Vining . I doubt that there are many jazz festivals that begin in this fashion

This is not new for Wangaratta, however. Many years ago I read from my second book, Low Rent, (published by Text), accompanied by the great double bassist Steve Elphick. As it happens I have the lovely delphinium blue volume Australian Poetry Since 1788, to review for the Sun-Herald in Sydney. A landmark, a handsome door stop of unprecedented scope and density, which really belongs on the corner of every kind of writer's desk for daily inspiration. Geoff Page is very well represented within. Geoff's reading was late on Friday afternoon. It was soon followed by bassist Linda Oh's Quartet (the first of the international collaborations that are characteristic of this festival. This superb band began with all parts moving dynamically but smoothly, complex but never complicated. It all seemed to be blown by a swift wind. At the same time all the elements within that wind-borne formation created their own disturbances which effected disturbances of local pressure, which effected all other elements. Interactive is the word. The first piano solo by young Cuban/American Fabian Almazan sprang up as a whirlwind of brilliant cascades, powerful chords and engaging melodic ideas. Drummer Kendrick Scott was driving and often explosive, replete with subtle sounds and textures, notably on snare and cymbals (including a high speed but low frequency growl or burr on snare), yet always discreet. There sat the perfect drummer, it seemed to me, his American reputation fully justified within a few bars. And of course Linda Oh, leaning forward at the bass as if she were flying, was flying indeed. I'm sure others will have seen some resemblance between her neat and exotic figure and the cute heroines in those comic books that passengers strap hanging beside me on Japanese trains used to read.

The first tune was an original, the second was Something's Coming from West Side Story, and it took me a moment to decide, yes, it was indeed Something's Coming, so perfectly did it fit the band's concept - reminding us how much great music there is in Leonard B's excursion into musical theatre (just prior to this Bernstein had narrated on an album called What Is Jazz? which features, among other things, a wonderful abstract interpretation of Sweet Sue by the Miles Davis Quintet with Coltrane, Red Garland, Philly Joe and Paul Chambers). Tenor saxophonist Sam Sadigursky impressed immediately, but by the third piece he was breathtaking. Superb constructions, a feeling that was often ravishing, often exciting and perhaps the most beautiful upper register I have heard  in person on this instrument.

Moving right on and upward - American star trombonist/composer/arranger Josh Roseman with the Australian Art Orchestra. Two of Roseman's American colleagues also played with the band: drummer Ted Poor and pianist/drummer/saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum. Two drummers then, with Apfelbaum also delivering a fine tenor saxophone solo and a mesmerising interlude on melodica from the drum chair. Roseman assumed a number of antic postures at the microphone, including his falling asleep position, in which it seemed he would slide to the floor if he let go the microphone stand. He also spoke in a faux-stoned drawl, but in fact everything he said was sharp, funny and, when he acknowledged the Australian musicians who had rehearsed only briefly under great pressure, quite moving. He also said - and here I approximate, because I lost my nice blue notebook on the way back to Sydney - that Australian Barney McAll, with whom he had collaborated for some time, "Is out of a tree. Now I am in his native land I am beginning to understand what that tree is."

Then - Bang! Suddenly after this laid back introduction it was all happening. The horns angled, raced and scrambled through breakneck lines from all directions, each ending in a high dissonant blast. Through this Barney's electronics pinged and squalled, likewise Geoff Hughes's guitar, and the drummers played like dervishers even as the horns functioned as a percussion section unto themselves, like James Brown's horns gone haywire. It was as if the sea had risen suddenly in wild peaks under multi-directional cyclonic gusts. It was crazy, but happy crazy. Some of the slapstick elements (Allan Browne beside me noted some influence of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago) went perhaps over the top in the grand din of the finale, but it brought the house down. What could I say but "OW! I feel good! Like I knew that I would".

Actually there is a lot more to say. The Australians all soloed brilliantly while Roseman leaned back, twisted and lurched  along the oblique cross rhythms, a mean happy smirk of appreciation on his face. James Greening delivered a stupendous trombone solo. Altoist Tim Wilson and tenor saxophonist Jamie Oehlers whipped, slashed and stretched long bending notes across the jumping chaos. The two triumpeters, Paul Williamson and Eugene Ball played great solos, with Eugene screaming higher than I had ever heard him reach. Roseman's solos were mostly brief, but absolutely distinctive. He produced one of the largest and mellowest trombone sounds I have heard - as well as gritty distortions - and it was more than the core tone: the notes were defined and contained in the air in compact columns, somewhat like Clark Terry playing the flugelhorn. His one extended interlude made haunting use of multiphonics and loop echo delay. Later in the festival Roseman's own Josh Roseman Unit astounded everyone, showing once again that, contrary to impressions we might gain far down the face of the globe, American jazz is not frozen in its various classical periods.

In my review of last year's Wangaratta, in which major extended works were played by bands led by Stu Hunter, Allan Browne and Jonathan Zwartz (and composed from within those bands), I noted that these showed how jazz could transcend itself as a unified dramatic as well as musical event, while remaining a powerful expression of the idiom itself. This year the Roseman/Art Orchestra collaboration had that effect, and so did Sandy Evans's suite When The Sky Cried Rainbows and the Barney McCall/Gian Slater collaboration Graft featuring the Invenio Choir. But before that some perhaps less ambitious but brilliant events.

First I had to rush from ex-Sydney now Melbourne guitarist Ben Hauptmann's band Bob, a name distinguished by its perfect symmetry (Hauptmann helpfully explained that this palindrome was short for Robert) to catch the finals of the drum competition (as it happened I messed up my timetable and missed them). Bob included the first of three festival appearances by Gian Slater, who sang beautifully, as always, on the first two tunes I caught, though she was not aided by the acoustic of St Patricks Hall. Once again there were two drummers - brother James Hauptmann and Evan Mannell, who kicked the rock feels powerfully and cleverly. With sister Zoe Hauptmann and Chris Hale (no relation) on electric basses this band plays something that is jazz and rock without sounding very much like the once-familiar fusion idiom. For one thing, they understand rock and pop better than did many of the fusion players, formidable musicians though they be

The National Jazz  Awards continue, thanks to the patronage of Anthony and Sharon Lee. There are those who are completely against competition in music, but in my experience ideals and reality sometimes confound each other (not that I have no sympathy for the anti-competition viewpoint). Competition pervades nature, but this doesn't mean that humans have to conform to this principle though most do, unless they have established themselves on some transcendantal plateau. Everyone is in competition with someone, or perhaps many others, in their chosen careers unless they have the field entirely to themselves; though they don't have to think in these terms. Contrary perhaps to expectations there is a great deal of camaraderie amongst the competitors at Wangaratta, even if some end up disgruntled for a while.

Further, some of the best music often occurs in the heats and finals. Artistic director Adrian Jackson was frank when I questioned him. "The competition is a point of difference to other festivals. For the finalists it also helps fill out their CVs. It can actually help them. When Barney McAll won the first competition which was for piano players obviously, he had been tossing up whether to continue with a musical career. Winning that year decided him, fortunately for us." The prize money also comes in handy.

I only heard a few heats, and indeed two of these were festival highlights for me. Evan Mannell displayed his highly distinctive style to great advantage, particularly on an imaginative and atmospheric version of Ornette Coleman's Lonely Woman, on which Dale Barlow played tenor saxophone with great restraint and beauty. (it is such a fantastic melodic vehicle that wind players must have some fleeting impulse to make the show theirs). Cameron Reid made the superb band (Barlow, Matt McMahon on piano and Ben Waples on bass) swing sweet as a nut on Ornette Coleman's When Will The Blues Leave. Incidentally Matt McMahon, sitting upright in a blue velvet jacket - worn with white T shirt and jeans - struck gold every time he touched the keyboard.

The fact that there are enraged accusations of cheating and rumours of large sums of money being laid on the outcome will give some idea of the spirit in which the event is approached. Guns were brandished in the main street. The winner this year was Sydney drummer Tim Firth. Second, Perthian Ben Falle (and what a happy trip across the country for this young man). Third, Sydneysider Dave Goodman, one of our great drummers, whether he can win a competition or not.

Another band I heard briefly was the Nick Haywood Quartet. I was there long enough, before rushing off to hear Sandy Evans's new work, to catch a poignant, golden solo by great Melbourne guitarist Steve Magnusson on Jimmy Webb's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. Bassist Haywood played beautifully too and the clarity, sparkling lyricism and, yes, bracing intellectuality of Colin Hopkins's piano also made it hard for me to tear myself away. I have just got a new CD by this band, recorded on Jazzhead. 

Now Sandy. I tore myself away because certain projects must be heard whole. Evans is one of our major composers and her suite, played in the wonderful Wangaratta Performing Arts Theatre with minimal pauses betwen sections, is an outstanding concert piece. When The Sky Cries Rainbows is a meditation on the effect on her life and on that of her husband Tony Gorman of the onset, some years ago, of Tony's multiple sclerosis. Gorman, a brilliant reed player and an irrepressible, often humorous personality with an engaging Scots accent, once told me that he had woken up paralysed from the waist down. There had been no forewarning. This went away and returned in less dramatic but nevertheless distressing increments (he can still ride his bike). He still plays the clarinet in fascinating duets with Indian drummer Bobby Singh. His technique is limited in comparison to his previous high virtuosity but his playing is very haunting and affecting despite that. I hesitate to say because of that because his playing was always stirring. Gorman's humour has not diminished, but surely he must have his moments.

The humour and the moments are reflected in the suite. This begins with a blaze of light, a kind of free-form fanfare. Then it turns inward. Some of the slow, limpid ensembles, with their idiosyncratic voicings sometimes blended immaculately and sometimes set lines of differentiated colour running in parallel, like a rainbow - sometimes grooved slyly, othertimes floated on the edge of utter stillness - cast a powerful spell but never really one of melancholy. Not for me. I found it meditative and beautiful but at one point a friend sitting beside me broke down in tears. I didn't realise this (at first I thought she had fallen asleep, reclining sideways with her face turned away.) Some of the ensembles also swing, some trigger a Latin pulse, some start up hints of the marches Tony was so fond of, and some are bursting with joy and craziness, breaking into squalls of overlapping free soloistic play by all members of the sextet.

The style and personality of the soloists gave us a brilliant series of contrasting sounds and shapes. Some of the most exciting interludes occurred when trumpeter Phil Slater and Sandy, on soprano, played in overlapping relays. What a dazzle of shining entanglements, what bursts of galvanising power! When Alister Spence's piano followed - thoughtful, resonant, sparkling - the volume fell for a moment, drawing us deeper into the music. The effect of Brett Hirst's strong, expressive bass was singularly dramatic because everything else stopped when he soloed. Toby Hall's drumming, with the curious singing that accompanies it sometimes barely audible, came from a mysterious place. Of course James Greening played glorious trombone, often humorous, but also overwhelming in its bravado and braying power. Phil Slater in one solo surrounded his notes with a mesh of blustering splintered overtones in an effect I had thought to be possible only on saxophone or feedback guitar. The  second section had him playing unaccompanied, and his first phrase, beginning with a slow slalom drop down a sixth, reminded me of  The Homecoming from The Man With The Golden Arm, played by Pete Candoli on the Elmer Bernstein soundtrack (Bernstein West, as he was known, to distinguish him from Bernstein East). This marvelous interlude was not applauded because the ensemble had already slid into place and nobody wanted to miss a note. A great roar went up in the theatre when the band fell silent.

Now Barney McAll, Gian Slater and the 16 mixed voices of the Invenio Choir. Some of the latter's lines were wordless. They stepped hypnotically, accurately, through odd intervals with a feeling of ancient ritual, and sometimes the sopranos pierced the soul with high, pure radiations. Voices became light. Two grand pianos faced each other in front of the choir, played by Mcall and Andrea Keller, who sustained long rhythmic continuos and  engaged in two exchanges of lyrical, lucid, hymnal and bluesy luminosity. Chris Hale played a quiet bass guitar solo of great subtlety and McAll's electronics seemed to appear like apparations all over the stage. Dale Gorfinkel's vibraphone was part of the texture often without your being immediately aware that he was playing. A thin sliver of a man dressed in lime and kalsomine green loose trousers and smock, he looked uncannily like someone who had just stepped from a space ship. This impression, as you will see, was remarkably apposite.

While I was reminded briefly and obliquely of Bach Motets and Gregorian chant, of  techno, blues, rock and jazz, it was not quite like anything I had heard. Barney at one stage took to a microphone and began talking about "the singularity" (subject of a couple of books some years back) and of an exponential advance of technology so swift that we would soon be like the dinosaurs. Indeed this music sounded at times like the ritual utterance of a vanishing race, even as it was shot through with the technology of which Barney spoke.

Now as it happened I had begun reading Julian Assange, The Unauthorised Autobiography on the train down to Wangaratta. A troubling and indeed puzzling book. In a brief history of hacking, Assange even mentioned the Phone Phreaks [correst spelling] of whom I'd read years ago in Esquiremagazine, and I still have that edition in my collection of Esquires from that unique magazine's golden era. Bear withe me. One of the puzzling  elements of Assange's book was the repeated assertion that quantum mechanics had inspired his search for truth. Yet he gave no example of quantum mechanics. I'll give you one in simplistic terms. it shows how observation itself can change observed reality, at the subatomic level at least. Some particles are so small that they do not interact with light, which consists of photons. A gamma ray does interact with them, but pushes them aside, so that they remain invisible, and in fact are mathematical posits.

I mention all this because it may seem strange that overlapping and in some respect conflicting views of an onrushing future should rise to the surface at a jazz festival. Not strange at Wangaratta. Nor in fact so strange for anyone who has followed contemporary jazz and has followed the whole tradition and its ramifications. I caught some of Melbourne alto saxophonist David Rex's bop-oriented band at  Jazz on Ovens. Despite a stellar line-up, including the remarkable Grabowsky on piano, brother Phillip Rex on bass and perfect drummer for the occasion Craig Simon, this was somehow less vibrant than Andrew Dickeson's similarly oriented band last year with Eamon McNallis on trumpet and New Zealander Roger Mannins on tenor.

Also La Societe de Antipodes, whose tour was sponsored by Alliance Francaise andf the French Embassy in Australia. Melburnian Adam Simmons on tenor and French bass clarinetist Denis Colin joined with Benjamin Moussay, keyboards, and Chander Sardjoe, drums in a highly pleasing blend of acoustic reeds  and electronics which flowed hypnotically and melodiously, punctuated by certain angularities. Yet it did not exactly kill me, though a previous set had won a standing ovation. Neverthess, I emerged soothed and refreshed by their atmospherics. On the free Reed Street stage I heard the Stonnington Youth Orchestra with two of their mentors, Allan Browne and Bob Sedergreen. This was very enjoyable, but after the humiliation of having Cameron Reid undo my shoelaces it was disturbing to see that some of those kids - including a few as young as eight and ten - were making faces at me. I pointed them out to Allan, but no action has been taken. Where's the respect?

Elliott Dalgliesh's Mute Canary Project was a trio this time with Dalgliesh returning to tenor saxophone, the remarkable Phillip Rex on bass and brilliant young brisbane drummer Chris Vale. This grew steadily in power and really took off when they were joined by Australian expatriate pianist Walter Lampe. By then many had left, which it was hard for me to understand. It was not unduly loud or harsh or crazy In fact it was solid, elegant and stern. Perhaps too stern and austere for its late night time spot.

Elliott and  drummer Allan Browne also played a late night duet that held a good crowd until the end. Browne read some of his own poetry while accompanying himself at the drums, and he also read some T.S. Eliot. Suddenly I felt like getting some Eliot off my chest and did so with one foot on a fold back speaker, facing Browne with my back to the audience. I was surprised when people later told me how much they had enjoyed this. Browne suggested we should get together and present some poetry and drums. That would be good, but the point is....Wangaratta! This sort of thing is part of a tradition, yet also unusual.

For the first time I heard a solo recital in the Holy Trinity Cathedral that was not entirely satisfactory. The reasons were extra-musical. Platoons of people, my age and even older, began walking out on the great international bassist Barre Phillips's delicate playing. Okay, they are under no obligation to stay - and some are catching overlapping events no doubt - but after five to ten minutes? And with no attempt to walk quietly? This makes it very hard not to hate them. Phillips - a slim figure, also of our generation, whose sharp face was filled with keen Yankee intelligence - came to resemble a wandering prophet intoning softly while multitudes walked away from him. Once the audience situation had stabilised it was musically enthralling., with Phillips using the cathedral space to carry hushed rubbings on strings and wood, with sudden plucked resonances opening the space behind, and a glorious flowing of bowed sound.

Everything changed in the main theatre when Phillips played an improvised duet with old colleague Mike Nock. I described this in my lovely lost blue notebook, sitting at an outdoor table in Wangaratta and thinking I was writing sweetly. I'll never really know because the book possibly fell to earth while I was helping an old lady with her luggage (few good turns go unpunished). I'm not up to recreating the duet. All I can say is that this was another highlight, intimate yet vast, enveloping even at the lowest volumes. The acoustics of the WPAT and the sensitive job done by the sound people have to be included as an important element.

One thing about Mike Nock. Here is a man who moves into the zone whenever he sits at the piano. Like me he was born in 1940, and so was John Pochee. They redeem my generation and all who filled the theatre, young an old, and heard this offering as connoiseurs, were redeemed here at Wangaratta. Amen. Sorry about the writing. Next year it will be dashed good. I have another blue book.