22 November 2012
Jazz in Australia #4
Plus ça change – jazz at Wangaratta and beyond
© Marc Bongers
Sometime in the early 2000s, Paul Grabowsky - jazz composer, pianist, leader and articulate advocate of the arts - had a letter published in The Age that said we have in our Australian jazz scene 'a fertile, active milieu existing as part of a generational continuum'. He said much more, too, on related subjects; he'd been galvanised by the 'ideological conservatism' that characterised the Ken Burns documentary Jazz that had just finished airing on the ABC, and he was scathing in his critique of City of Melbourne and Arts Victoria decisions to scrap funding for the Melbourne Jazz Festival.
Plus ça change? The difficulties that surround funding for the arts generally and jazz in particular, backdropped by the painfully enduring yet ultimately ridiculous question 'is jazz dead?' keep the negative discussions alive. In a positive vein, the idea of a generational continuum of improvising musicians in Australia seems to be a continually crystallising phenomenon. For example, we look at musicians such as Bernie McGann, who celebrated his 75th birthday this year with a round (or two) of concerts and notice that some of his songs are becoming standards. We see that, although the gender imbalance still exists, there are performers such as Tamara Murphy (awarded the Young Elder Composition prize last year) and Hannah James (Jann Rutherford Memorial Award winner in 2011) joining the ranks of female jazz, and improvising mentors such as Sandy Evans and Andrea Keller. A rich vein.
Meanwhile, the jazz and improvised music scene gets on with the business of being itself. Despite - perhaps due to - multiple commercial constraints (funding, venues, audience numbers) we see surges of creativity that defy negativity, and these are something to be celebrated. And Grabowsky himself has moved on from the role of Artistic Director of that improvisational powerhouse, the Australian Art Orchestra, to pursue other avenues in his own multistranded career - making way for a new generation of artistic leadership of the AAO (applications close 30 November).
Wangaratta Jazz and Blues Festival this year was reviewed positively by two of our most important local commentators - John McBeath of The Australian and Roger Mitchell of AusJazz.net. Both reflected on the variety of textures and on the collaborations that were a feature of the festival.
When promoters and venues wonder about where audiences go between festivals, the answer is often simply that you can have musical experiences at festivals that aren't possible at other times. Internationals and interstaters are flown in and - particularly in Wangaratta - thrown together in a creative atmosphere that lends itself to playful opportunities. A regional festival such as Wangaratta carries an extra dimension of delight that can't - logistically - happen in other contexts.
If nothing else, when you go to Wangaratta as a performer, there's no going home after the gig. You're there, with your colleagues and collaborators. Beautiful new things take shape. Existing friendships and projects are cemented. I stepped in this year to help as an 'emcee', filling a gap, and had an experience of this year's festival that was like no other I'd had before. I caught a glimpse of what it must mean to be a performer at these events. It is an entirely different experience to the one out front in the audience. There's a sense of being at home, in a 'natural' musician habitat. Small groups of friends, family and colleagues cluster in the wings or backstage at concerts, and the performance represents less of a spectacle, concert or event than it does a fabric, a home and - dare I say it - a community.
Standouts for me were a Joseph Tawadros concert that included the advertised band (Joseph on oud, brother James on percussion, Matt McMahon on piano, Steve Hunter on bass guitar) and Phil Slater (trumpet) in a stunning guest appearance for one of the songs; the duo between pianist Mike Nock and guitarist Stephen Magnusson; and the duo performance in the Trinity Cathedral with bass player Mark Dresser of Trio M and our own Scott Tinkler (trumpet). John Clare, in a review of the concert, commented on what he called a glob of sound. 'Dresser had occasionally jagged his bow fiercely across the strings, producing growls, sounds like a forest giant cracking in a hurricane, sharp pangs and tiny harmonics like radio static, and Tinkler had complemented this with his own radio harmonics via his unique control of half-valve techniques. All of this was present in the final moments of sound, yet it was unified as one liquid glob…' Glob or not, it was gorgeous.
Brisbane-based singer Kristin Berardi took out the National Jazz Award this year, and said she had had an almost 'out of body' experience during the concert. Piano player in the Awards rhythm section (along with Sam Anning, bass and Raj Jayaweera, drums), Sam Keevers, said backstage that her credentials as a great singer were clear to him. 'There was a moment there, where she opened her mouth and sang and I quite simply would have done anything for her.'
Long may the continuum continue.
© Australian Music Centre (2012) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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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