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28 June 2012

Jazz in Australia # 2

Miriam Zolin's jazz column

Chris Potter solos during his MIJF concert with JMO. Photo by Claire Cross supplied by MIJF Image: Chris Potter solos during his MIJF concert with JMO. Photo by Claire Cross supplied by MIJF  

Graeme Bell 1914-2012

Graeme Bell passed away in June this year. Inevitably, every art form has its great and gracious contributors - the people who have blazed trails and helped to create the flavour of a particular scene. Graeme Bell was one of those for us. Listeners who came to know him later in life may not have realised the energy and inventiveness he brought to what he did. The band led by Graeme Bell, (in one incarnation called Graeme Bell and his Jazz Gang) were invited to Prague in Czechoslovakia to take part in the World Youth Festival in 1947, and the subsequent European tour was a ripping success. It was also, according to Bruce Johnson in his Oxford Companion to Australian Jazz, 'the first major cultural export from Australia to Europe'1 . For some Europeans at the time, the Bell band was the first live jazz they had heard. Ever. Prior to the tour, the band sold more than 50,000 copies each of the records they released through Regal Zonophone. On their return from their second European tour in 1952 they did a series of ABC Concert tours, experiencing the 'hysterical adulation later attributed to rock stars'2 .

Graeme Bell had a long and distinguished career, and, in his time, put Australian jazz on the map of the world. Since 2003 we have had the Bell Awards, thanks to an inspired idea of Albert Dadon and Adrian Jackson, in Melbourne. The awards are named to honour Graeme Bell and they celebrate jazz in Australia, giving the scene a gala night of celebration, a hall of fame, and a list of awards that raise the profile of veterans, younger players, recordings and individual songs. Thank you Graeme, for everything.

The Australian Screen website has a page featuring downloadable tracks from the first published recordings of Graeme Bell's Dixieland Band made in Melbourne in 1944 - you can listen to Swanston Street Shamble here.


The Melbourne Jazz Cooperative was lucky enough to snaffle a performance by Trevor Watts and Veryan Weston during their recent visit to Australia as guests of the Darling Harbour Jazz and Blues Festival. These two world-renowned improvisers of the British jazz scene appeared at Bennetts Lane one Sunday night after successful concerts in Sydney and New Zealand. A rapt audience enjoyed improvising of high calibre. You didn't have to know anything to know you were in the presence of masters.

In the set break at the concert, Jessica Nicholas of ABC Jazz was marvelling at the variety of music she'd heard in the previous weeks, all under the umbrella term of 'jazz'. To illustrate, she juxtaposed the Watts & Weston concert with the performance by bass player Renaud Garcia-Fons trio Arcoluz. Both were concerts she enjoyed; both were billed and presented as jazz. Add to the mix other performances such as Peter Knight's Fish Boast of Fishing, Luke Howard & Janos Bruneel, and Tamara Murphy's Young Elder Award Premiere of Big Creatures and Little Creatures, and the picture is even more interesting. It's a familiar theme - a quirky fact of music journalism is that most young music writers, when they start writing about this type of music feel compelled to pen an article asking 'What is jazz?' in response to the delicious complexity of the 'genre'. Personally, I'm happy just to stick with 'delicious complexity' and let it be what it is.

Festivals sow the seeds of future collaboration

We welcomed dozens of international players in May and June, an influx that was due to the festivals, and many incorporated national tours with their visits, with concerts at clubs such as the Ellington in Perth, and Venue 505 and the Sound Lounge in Sydney.

As is often the case with festivals - when programmed with this in mind - the great gift for audiences is the opportunity to hear our local favourites in collaboration with visiting stars. Musicians also enjoy the interaction, formal and informal. Some future collaborations are the result of impromptu jams that happen outside the regular programming at festivals.

Chris Potter playing at a MIJF concert
Chris Potter solos during his MIJF concert with JMO.
Photo © Claire Cross, supplied by MIJF

A highlight for many was the visit by saxophonist Chris Potter (pictured), programmed by the Melbourne International Jazz Festival this year. He was here with the McCoy Tyner Trio and José James, performing a tribute to the famous 1963 John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman recording.

When Dave Theak of the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra heard about the visit he was excited enough to contact MIJF artistic director Michael Tortoni - and the result was a collaboration between Chris Potter and the JMO that saw the local ensemble performing with Potter in Melbourne, Sydney and Wollongong. The sense you get from both Potter and Theak is that the benefit - and the enjoyment - is mutual. In a recent interview I asked Theak about how an ensemble like the JMO would prepare for a guest composer's visit. He says it starts with the composer sending the charts, then:

'...I send them to the band; the band does their individual homework and learns the dots and then we get together for preliminary rehearsals and sectionals a week or so before we meet the artist. We talk about how to make things sound like the JMO, and in the case of new compositions that haven't been recorded before by other jazz orchestras, we generally try a couple of different things for the guest to decide on when we meet them.'

There often aren't many rehearsals with the guest - Theak says they have a minimum of two, but nowhere near the week of paid rehearsals that European radio orchestras such as the Danish Radio Big Band would normally expect.

Chris Potter on the web
Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra on the web
Trevor Watts website
Interview with Dave Theak and Chris Potter about this collaboration on Jazz-planet.com


- a little segment that highlights something from the Australian jazz scene that I've enjoyed listening to this month - impulsive, disinterested, unsponsored, unprompted and unfunded.

Fire record cover image
1994 Birdland release
Fire by Mark Simmonds

There's a CD I keep returning to. Every year I revisit it at least once and last week I found myself pulling it out of the CD rack again, and putting it in my earphones for the ride into work. It's the double CD Fire by the Mark Simmonds band the Freeboppers, with Mark on saxophone, Scott Tinkler on trumpet, Steve Elphick on bass and Simon Barker on drums. The CD, released in 1994, is not perfect. John Shand, in Jazz: The Australian Accent notes, 'the mastering is uneven and Elphick's magnificent bass sound is poorly represented.' The band itself did not last beyond 1996 and Mark Simmonds no longer performs, although music reportedly remains of core importance to him. Despite any technical glitches, the CD remains one whose rich bright textures consistently sit me upright and actively listening. I hear 'Spotted Dog' (Track 1 on the first disc) and it's definitely jazz at work. That irresistible injection of zing.


1 Johnson, Bruce: The Oxford Companion to Australian Jazz, 1987, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, p. 101
2 ibid.

Miriam Zolin is the publisher and editor at extempore and jazz-planet.com. She has enjoyed listening to a broad spectrum of jazz and improvised music for a number of years. As well as regular writing about Australian musicians and their music, Miriam has recently contributed to PenTales, Griffith Review, Cordite Poetry Review, Australian Book Review and The Sleepers Almanac.


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