Listening to ABC Radio this week I was reminded what a great jazz town Melbourne is. Broadcast live from the studio in another city was a singer visiting from the States, accompanied by a guitarist.
The presenter described the artist as “a very, very good jazz singer”, so being a keen jazz fan I kept my ears open for the performance, but what I heard wasn’t particularly special. Good feel, nice tone, but pitching was out more than a few times and the improvisation was nothing to write home about.
Not a patch on Michelle Nicolle, I thought. How lucky are we in Melbourne to have such extraordinary talent on our doorstep? I caught her this Saturday at a new Jazz venue, the Como Cinema Bar, with the equally gifted Steve Magnusson on guitar.
The Como Cinema has been totally revamped in the true sense of the word. The new decor is your basic High Class Vampire Gothic (‘though I doubt vampires would welcome the plethora of ornate mirrors that line the walls). It is such a hip place to hang out, especially if you are over 35, because the crowd is older, so a middle aged old fart like myself feels young there! The venue couldn’t be any more different than the horrid, plastic, loud and nasty Jam Factory Cinema Complex down the road that has staged jazz events in its cavernous foyer over the years to little success. This writers verdict: the new Como Bar and Cinema is a delight combining live jazz with good wine and great films.
From six p.m. I caught two and a half sets of Magnusson and Nicolle before a film. The two multi-award winning musicians had fun together playing jazz standards which were perfectly suited to that venue and the older, more affluent Toorak/South Yarra punters, most of whom would never set foot in Bennetts Lane. The crowd loved it, tapping their feet and calling out for Body and Soul and other Real book hits.
Nicolle was recovering from laryngitis, but you would never know it. Always the professional, she is a model for any aspiring jazz singer. She has excellent pitch, a huge range, good breath control, all this combined with her swinging rhythmic improvisation make listening to her in any situation an enjoyable experience.
I have been lucky enough to have listened to Ms Nicolle live dozens of times and as a singer and band leader she’s never predictable. If you hear her perform a song from her huge repertoire more than once her delivery is always different. Working with the innovative guitarist Steve Magnusson makes a perfect balance for an excellent jazz duo. Magnusson swings, grooves, fingers flying all over the fret board faster than a speeding bullet! He plays lines many guitarists would love to be able to play at half the tempo. His style is unique.
At the Fremantle International Jazz Festival a few years back, Kurt Elling, the headlining act, called Michelle Nicolle on stage at the outdoor venue with no warning. They did a blues. As Elling so rightly put it: “She won!”
At this year’s Wangaratta Festival National Jazz Awards, Michelle Nicolle is a judge, with Mike Nock and Anita Wardell. Nicolle and Magnusson are both previous winners of this prestigious national award (Nicolle in 98 and Magnusson in 2000). If we find another Australian vocal talent as good as Ms Nicolle in the 2005 competition we will certainly have cause for celebration.