This year’s TAC Wangaratta Festival of Jazz presented close to fifty Australian and international jazz and blues acts.

For sixteen years this unassuming country town in north-east Victoria, about an hour’s drive from Albury-Wodonga, has turned itself over to our most important annual jazz event. We hear too little live jazz in our cities and this deprivation showed in the attitude of the urban visitors, who seized upon each performance in 2005 with hungry interest.

Theatricality went hand-in-hand with Scandinavian austerity when E.S.T. (Erbjorn Svensson Trio) performed on Friday night. Their compositions – with such intriguing titles as When God Created The Coffee Break – were presented in long, unbroken suites as fog was puffed across the purple-lit stage of St. Patrick’s Hall.

Magnus Ostrom kept up a ride-heavy, rockish beat while Svensson’s left hand often precisely doubled Dan Berglund’s long and intricate basslines. All three musicians used effects panels to modify their solos. Berglund bowed and slid his fingers into the high register of his electrified double bass to produce a sound closer to an electric guitar. At one moment Ostrom found it necessary to yell into his drum pickups. Somehow Svensson managed to reduce the sound of the grand piano to a fuzzy hiss. There were also some moments of quiet reflective chamber jazz.

Later that evening in the Town Hall, Ten Part Invention presented the newest addition to their repertoire, Miroslav Bukovsky’s Five Bells Suite. It was scored with inventive colour that drew on the abilities of the four reed-players, who are all multi-instrumentalists. Ken James’ soprano solo was particularly impressive in a band of improvisers. The rhythm section was solid but unobtrusive. Leader and raconteur John Pochee gave full attention to his musicians and barely glanced at his drums. Tony Barry sauntered onstage towards the end of the suite to read Kenneth Slessor’s poem.
Ten Part were back at eleven the next morning, perhaps a little too early after the previous night’s gig – Pochee announced it as “Wangaratta’s answer to the Bert Newton Show”. They were launching a long-awaited live album, Live At Wangaratta (ABC Jazz) recorded at the 1999 festival, that focuses exclusively on the compositions of the late pianist Roger Frampton. They tore through Bob Bertles’ Blues For Clancye and then moved on to Unidentified Spaces, an extended suite by Sandy Evans. One of the movements, North Pole, a moody, intensifying blues, featured a fine alto solo by Andrew Robson. Two hard-swinging pieces by Frampton closed the set. Active for close to twenty years, Ten Part Invention is the cross-generational locus of Sydney’s best improvisers and most ambitious composers. The members are also musically promiscuous and it was a pleasure to see them reappear in various ensembles at the festival.

There were high spirits among the visitors in the constant shuffle between the eight principle venues, but unfortunately the queues were sprinkled all weekend with persistent rain. Picking up from last year, a young local boy sat on the pavement outside Hollywood’s Cafe and busked with a pair of spoons and a country music CD. Was that in protest against this all-conquering jazz? Up Murphy Street another enterprising young lad honked away to Advance Australia Fair with an expectant open saxophone case.

The Oliver Lake Trio’s Saturday afternoon set demanded the most from the audience. Lake, an American in his early sixties with a great deal of experience, is also a poet who combines the two arts. The Town Hall was filled to the back wall, and the punters who left mid-performance were quickly replenished from the foyer. The stayers were won over by the highest standards of musicianship. A drum solo by Pheeroan ak Laff was received with enormous enthusiasm. Lake’s alto was searing and in closest communication with trumpeter Baikida Carroll.

The very well-regarded Tomasz Stanko Quartet emphasised timbre and texture in a set that seemed to epitomise contemporary European jazz on the ECM label – totally bald men playing impressionistic, improvised art music with no real grounding in the blues. Stanko’s very beautiful, mellow trumpet tone sang over light and spacious grooves. Pianist Marcin Wasilewski comped ambiguous chords pianissimo. Michal Miskiewicz seemed loath to move away from his atmospheric ride cymbal, and though he did build in intensity he never seemed to break out of the constraints laid down by Slawomir Kurkiewicz’s repetitive bass figures. When the echo of the drummer’s energetic attacks died away, nothing had been transformed. It was hard to believe that the band had to wipe the sweat from their faces. A later Stanko performance in the Holy Trinity Cathedral received great acclaim and many headed afterwards to the CD stall.

M.C. Jim McLeod announced Bernie McGann as “the sound of Australian jazz”. What is that sound? A dry, spare alto sax full of the blues. McGann has an international reputation and decades of experience. On Saturday night he was with his regular quartet of Warwick Alder (trumpet), Lloyd Swanton (bass) and John Pochee (drums), who appear on a recent live CD, Live at Side On (Rufus). The focus of the quartet is extended improvisation. The tunes included Dexter Gordon’s Fried Bananas and the saxophonist’s own beautiful signature piece, Spirit Song. McGann, a very modest presence, squinted into the audience and apologised that there was no room in front of the stage for waltzing.

Bobby Gebert led a piano trio in a selection of semi-classics and originals, including Wayne Shorter’s Deluge and Thelonious Monk’s chugging Think of One. Gebert’s own M.D. swung fast on the momentum of young drummer Evan Mannell, whose characteristic mode was to cock his left ear to the kit and close his eyes with a scowl. On request, Gebert rhapsodised on The Single Petal Of A Rose from Ellington’s Queen’s Suite as an introduction to Come Sunday from Black, Brown and Beige.

Local musicians Mike Nock (piano), James Greening (trombone) and Brett Hirst (bass) merged with the Oliver Lake Trio to become the New York Jazz Collective. Their Saturday night concert was the highlight of the festival. Lake and Baikida Carroll put aside their wilder tendencies for virtuosic contemporary jazz. The charts seemed a little hastily thrown together but that did nothing to diminish the impression that this was jazz at a very high level. Drummer Pheeroan ak Laff, described by Nock as “one of the great groove-meisters”, led the band forward with huge physical force.

By Sunday, the eaves of the food tents in Reid Street were dropping sheets of water onto the shoes of pedestrians. Some of the free outdoor events, which are the ones that attract curious locals, were only lightly attended this year. Local volunteers ran everything smoothly and with good humour in these difficult conditions. Paul Williamson’s Hammond Combo – a Melbourne band in the mold of Jimmy Smith – performed a joyous set under the noisy aluminium roof of the Oven Street venue. Over in the bingo hall, visiting English singer Anita Wardell broke down a selection of standards to their basic elements and created fascinating new arrangements with a piano trio. Everything Happens To Me, introduced by Colin Hopkin’s delicate piano solo, was taken with slow poignancy by the singer.

Bob Barnard’s quartet offered a distinctive program of standards as his small, predominantly middle-aged audience dried off. This was the kind of performance where the tunes are cheered before they are played ( Sleepy Head, My Heart Belongs To Daddy, Getting Sentimental Over You). These were consolingly sweet twentieth century melodies for a rainy afternoon. Barnard’s cornet tone was superb.

All of the members of the Melbourne Women’s Jazz Festival Sextet contributed compositions to a challenging set. Sandy Evans, actually a Sydney import, provided a piece based on a poem by a detainee, The Sky Cries Rainbows. Fiona Burnett on soprano saxophone sometimes focused on dynamic subtleties and at other times was very uninhibited. She acknowledged that the melody of her Fox Force Six sounded Greek. Sonja Horbelt took a hands-only drum solo.

The smallest venue in Wangaratta, the Playhouse Theatre behind the Town Hall, seemed to encourage an informal, jocular atmosphere between musicians and audience. A tenor saxophonist from New Zealand, Roger Manins, led a very good trio in a series of short performances that alternated fast bop and lyrical ballads. This year’s winner of the festival’s National Jazz Awards, singer Elana Stone (who also appeared with the Mark Isaacs Trio), was in the Playhouse on Sunday night with her own quartet. She clomped across the stage to accompany the band on (basic) piano and flirted with the audience. At one point she declared she was hungry and asked the audience for food; somebody dutifully handed up a packet of M&Ms. She sings impressively. Her songs are not strictly jazz, but her musicians are loyalists and their integrity, especially that of drummer Evan Mannell, roots the material in a jazz conception. The common sentiment seemed to be that Stone has significant commercial potential.

To close Sunday night the Syncopators at the Pinsent Hotel blew the hell out of Mahogany Hall Stomp to the great joy of both visitors and locals. In addition to the appeal of international guests, Wangaratta is the best annual opportunity to sample the talents of both the Sydney and Melbourne jazz scenes.


M. K. Asprey is a Sydney writer whose short stories have appeared in ‘Island’

Hash Varsani is the owner of The Jazz Directory, a network of sites related to jazz, travel and everything else he loves. He also runs a selection of jazz related sites including Jazz Club Jury, a jazz club and festival review site. Check out his Google+ Profile, to see what else he's up to...probably setting up another website from one of his many passions.