Wangaratta Festival of Jazz
28-31 October 2005

If pressed to nominate a single image I’ll take away from this year’s TAC Wangaratta Festival of Jazz, it would be of a man, standing before us in a church, playing solo saxophone, proclaiming to the heavens that the greatness of the music is all that matters.

The Festival got off to a strong start on the Friday evening, with a performance by pianist Barney McCall. Broadcast live on the ABC, it featured music from his latest recording Mother of Dreams and Secrets, out on the Jazzhead label. McCall has been one of the success stories of Australian jazz, a musician now based full-time in New York, regularly playing with musicians of the caliber of Gary Bartz, Josh Roseman, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Kenny Garrett, Eddie Henderson or Wallace Roney. His latest project grew out of several visits he made to Cuba – in particular his responses to Cuban Sacred Rhythms. McCall had assembled a stellar local band for his performances that included tenor saxophonist Jamie Oehlers, trombonist Shannon Barnett, and guitarist Nash Lee. Percussionist Javier Fredes, best known for his work with Sam Keevers’ Los Cabrones and Red Fish Blue, was in rhythmic overdrive from start to finish. McCall’s piano took on a similarly percussive role, pushing the music forward, while at the same time giving plenty of space to Oehlers and Barnett, the featured soloists throughout.

It should be noted that Barnett’s playing has gone from strength to strength over the past year, she is fast becoming the trombonist of choice for a number of bandleaders, a rising star who takes her place alongside a number of excellent local trombonists such as Adrian Sherriff, Kynan Robinson, and Jordan Murray. Over the past decade, I’ve had occasion to see a number of Barney McCall performances at Wangaratta, each one different, and I’m yet to see one that didn’t knock me out. Joe Camilleri’s Jazzhead label is to be congratulated for re-releasing three of McCall’s earlier recordings to coincide with his new release; it’s sadly all-too-common for Australian jazz recordings to just vanish forever once the original pressing is gone.

Friday night also saw the first of three performances by Sweden’s EST or the Esbjorn Svensson Trio. EST are one of the new vanguard of piano trios, such as the Bad Plus or Australia’s own Misinterprotato, who deliver music at a volume and power that bears little relation to the piano trio tradition as defined by a Bud Powell or Bill Evans. There is an abrasive contemporary edge to the music that draws as much inspiration from rock music as it does from jazz. With the aid of electronics, prepared piano, and Dan Berglund’s soaring electrified double-bass, which managed at times to sound like Hendrix, the band’s groove-laden intensity won the crowd over completely, certainly if the dash to buy EST albums in the foyer afterwards was any indicator. Artistic Director of the Festival, Adrian Jackson, acknowledged being blown away by the band after seeing them in Korea last year, and their inclusion in the program was an inspired choice. It’s what a Festival should do, after all, open up audiences to new bands, new music.

Saturday morning saw the second Town Hall performance of Sydney band Ten Part Invention. The previous evening, they’d performed trumpeter Miroslav Bukovsky’s Five Bells Suite, based on the Kenneth Slessor poem. It was the TPI’s first Wangaratta appearance since their legendary 1999 performance, the last ever with Roger Frampton in the piano chair. Sadly, Frampton, who delivered his final performance that day in the face of terminal illness, died a few months later. It seemed a fitting tribute to Frampton’s memory that this year’s gig was used for the launch of the ABC release of Ten Part Invention’s 1999 performance Live at Wangaratta. The band featured music from that album, but also from their new recording Unidentified Spaces.

Sandy Evans’ suite, which gave the album its title, is yet another stunning addition to the tenor saxophonist’s growing body of work. Her multi-voice writing for large ensembles, so magnificently displayed in her commissioned piece Testimony for the Australian Art Orchestra a few years back, manages to be both challenging and inclusive at the same time. Featured soloist Andrew Robson, who replaced Bernie McGann in the alto chair a few years back, showed that he’s settled into the role; he appeared to relish shouldering much of the solo work. Drummer and bandleader John Pochee announced that the band is to celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. It’s the sort of longevity rarely seen in Australian jazz, particularly for large ensembles. On stage, the band reflects several generations and traditions of Australian jazz, which no doubt accounts for its eclectic and unpredictable sound. That and the fact that TPI boasts one of the most powerful frontlines in Australian jazz – Bob Bertles, James Greening, and the aforementioned Evans, Robson, and Bukovsky – and a swag of first rank composers, all capable of writing extended suites for a ten-piece band.

This year’s line-up of international guests was an impressive one. Saturday afternoon saw the first performance by the Oliver Lake Trio. Given Lake’s totally hip demeanor, it came as something of a shock for me to read in the program that the man is now in his sixties. Then again, if you look at the career, how could it be otherwise? He forms part of that second wave of free jazz players, post Coltrane, who re-introduced composition into the form. In the late 1960s, he formed the Black Artists Group (BAG) in St Louis, a group analogous to Chicago’s AACM. Along with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, and his fellow compatriots in the World Saxophone Quartet, such as Julius Hemphill, David Murray and Hamiet Bluiett, Lake has kept alive the spirit of innovation in jazz.

This Trio, comprising the great but neglectfully underrated trumpeter Baikida Carroll and drummer Pheeroan akLaff, is a veritable who’s who of creative musicianship. They delivered music as daring and uncompromising as anything I’ve heard at previous Festivals. Lake’s alto and Carroll’s trumpet conversed like two old friends, while akLaff’s percussive work, reminiscent of the great free jazz drummer Sunny Murray, seemed to open up space in every direction. The overall sound was mesmerizing, the twin horns darting in and around one other in exploratory fashion. And yet, the Trio’s music danced, as did the spoken word texts that Lake recited at various points during the performance, referencing 1960s jazz poetry by way of Amiri Baraki and rap. What lies behind Lake’s music is an endless questing, one that rightly earns him the mantle of elder statesman, not so much of jazz, but of what Anthony Braxton has called ‘creative music’.

Later that afternoon saw the first performance by another major international act, the Tomasz Stanko Quartet. Stanko, a Polish trumpeter whose career dates back to the late 1960s and 1970s free European jazz scene, has found himself in high demand of late thanks to a series of stunning recordings made for the ECM label. While his music has mellowed, and taken on a newfound lyricism, it has equally retained something of the stark and forbidding qualities that lay at the heart of Europe’s past. While critics have fallen over themselves over the most recent albums, such as Soul of Things or Suspended Night, I have to admit to a preference to some of the preceding albums: Matka Joanna or the wonderful homage to the music of Krzysztof Komeda, featuring players such as Bobo Stenson and Tony Oxley. It was of interest that Australian trumpeter Scott Tinkler, when recently interviewed for Rhythms magazine, referenced players such as Stanko and Kenny Wheeler as his inspirational sources, rather than the more predictable firebrands such as Freddy Hubbard or Lee Morgan.

Snaring Stanko for the Festival was a major coup, given he is one of the most in-demand players on the current international festival circuit. It says something about Wangaratta’s current status as a festival that it can headline someone of Stanko’s standing. It therefore came as something of a surprise when the Quartet’s first performance in the Town Hall on Saturday left me a little cold. The band seemed too safe, too reverent. Stanko’s band, which performs so beautifully on his recent records, never really seemed to warm up. By the following day, however, things had changed. Stanko’s performance in the Holy Trinity Cathedral was a revelation, fiery and intense, where the preceding day had been unfocused.

Stanko’s playing was suited to the acoustics of the Cathedral; he seemed inspired by the way his trumpet soared into the upper chambers, cannonaded around the vast space. Pianist Marcin Wasilewski cranked up the volume, generating great waves of sound behind Stanko, constantly forcing the music in new and unpredictable directions. Stanko’s music has always had a cinematic quality about it; it’s as if his compositions were soundtracks to imaginary films. He is not a virtuoso on his instrument; but, like Miles, he manages to turn his technical limitations into a strength, emphasizing colour and space, rather than line, playing less rather than more notes.

Stanko’s final performance on the Sunday evening was equally dramatic, and I was left wondering whether he and the band weren’t just jet-lagged on the Saturday, it might have been as simple as that.

The Wangaratta Festival has always made a feature of one-off combinations of players, and this year’s was no exception. Mike Nock’s New York Jazz Collective recorded a couple of albums for the Naxos label a few years back. For this edition of the band, Oliver Lake stepped into the role previously taken by New York alto player Marty Erlich, and James Greening and Brett Hirst replaced trombonist Ray Anderson and bassist Michael Formanek respectively. The band’s Saturday evening set ran through a number of Nock’s compositions, along with several by Baikida Carroll, including his homage to Nock titled Nock Down Under. Carroll’s work was a standout during the performance; he seemed to attack the notes, determined to stay out in front of Greening’s fat sound. Nock seemed content to sit out a lot of the music, clearly enjoying himself, but when he weighed in, his playing was loud and free, he seemed to relish the opportunity afforded by performing with such consummate musicians.

Wangaratta on a Sunday morning always has a sleepy feel to it. Aaron Choulai and his sextet, slinking on stage at the Town Hall at 11am, all looked like they could have done with a few more hours sleep, particularly given we’d all set our clocks forward an hour for the start of daylight saving.

Choulai burst onto the Melbourne jazz scene a few years back fronting Vada, a band of adventurous young players who’d honed their skills on his music. What was miraculous was that his compositional chops seemed already fully formed. The maturity of his extended pieces, which range freely across film music, klezmer, circus music, contemporary classical and avant-garde, seemed to belie his shy youthful looks. Someone that age shouldn’t have that much musical experience in them, shouldn’t have absorbed that much of the jazz tradition. The players he currently surrounds himself with are a testament to his standing in the local jazz community – Eugene Ball, Julien Wilson, Geoff Hughes. The band performed music from his new CD Korema, recorded at Bennett’s Lane during the Umbria Melbourne Jazz Festival in May this year. This music is far more satisfying than Choulai’s US recording Place; there is a greater emphasis on ensemble playing, with band members reigning in their own playing in service of the overall sound. Choulai’s piano is restrained, subtle, there are no flashy runs, just a spare style that supports the featured soloists. Similarly, Geoff Hughes’ guitar steered clear of individual notes, generating instead abstract soundscapes that gave body to Wilson’s rough-edged forays on tenor. There can be no doubt that Aaron Choulai is one of the most exciting prospects to emerge in Australian jazz and improvised music circles for some years. Not so much for his playing, but for his compositional skills, the sheer fecundity of his ideas, and the overall complexity of his approach.

Watching Aaron Choulai I was reminded that almost all the Australian acts at the Festival – Barney McCall, Misenterprotato, Christopher Hale, Ten Part Invention, Andrew Robson – almost exclusively perform original compositions. So it came of something of a surprise when New Zealand born Roger Manins began his set with the standard Just You Just Me. Manins won the National Jazz Award at Wangaratta in 2002, and his big tenor sound is reminiscent of players like Sonny Rollins or Joe Lovano. While Manins plays beautifully, squeezing life out of standards in the same way that Rollins does, his set seemed to lack the sort of adventure and daring I’d witnessed in so many other local sets throughout the Festival. While admiring the sound, I found the music almost too predictable, too comfortable to really engage with. It was interesting to contrast with Brisbane band Misinterprotato, a trio of young players who have released two excellent albums in the past year or so. They are part of the new wave of piano trios, citing influences such as EST, The Necks and Radiohead. Emphasizing an ensemble approach, they are more than comfortable cranking up the volume, generating mesmeric and fluid runs, working in tight with each other. It’s good to see bands rushing into the sort of space opened up by the Necks, or equally drawing inspiration not just from jazz, but from minimalism, trance, or rock music. It’s interesting to note of late that Radiohead have become the rock band of choice for so many jazz acts, from Brad Meldhau to Vada. It somehow seems appropriate, given that Radiohead have claimed to have listened endlessly to Alice Coltrane’s music when recording their commercially suicidal album Kid A, even though, on the surface, it appears to have nothing directly in common with her otherwordly recordings.

And so to a man standing alone before us in a church. Perhaps it was the setting, but Oliver Lake’s solo recital in the Holy Trinity Cathedral on Sunday afternoon felt like a religious experience. Strangely, the usual crowd that patiently lined up for so many other gigs at the Festival failed to materialize. It was a small but reverent audience that ushered itself quietly into the vast architectural space of the Cathedral. We knew we were here for a special experience. The acoustics of the Cathedral that so determinedly defeated The Necks when they performed there a few years back proved perfect for solo saxophone. Lake stood before us silently, then proceeded to weave his magic upon us, investigating the vast array of sounds his instrument was capable of, all seemingly linked to the human voice, from silent breathing through to singing. Lake’s alto is like his signature, his human cry. There was a purity of tone that reached up to the vast heavens above us, at times beautiful, other times ugly. Lake ranted and raved, performing his sound poems voiced with the same rhythm as his playing; the music danced, it was a journey of abstract and total freedom. Lake’s solo performance signaled that instant when everything comes together, performer, audience, space. He spoke in measured tones about the oneness of all great music, beyond category, beyond genre. “Miles and Muddy, the same”, he proclaimed, and, by the power of some higher authority, there amongst us, it seemed like the truth had been spoken.

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.