by Greg Phillips
The audience at Malvern Town Hall have come in their finery, wining on wine and dining on dips as they mingle wherever a seat presents itself.
They have come for the opening night of the 9th annual Stonnington Jazz Festival The festival runs for 11 days and features around 30 shows at various local venues.
Festival Director and Melbourne jazz identity Adrian Jackson officially opens the festival, which proudly decrees its 100 percent Australian artist allegiance.
Our opening act is vocalist, Chris McNulty, who has built a rich and fruitful music career since basing herself in New York in 1988. You can’t help but feel that the Big Apple has permeated her soul. From her stance, to her delivery, she radiates experience. Her delivery is warm and controlled. Her guitarist James Sherlock is a revelation, the musical conversation between the pair is engrossing and unpredictable. So immersed in the performance is McNulty that she falls five songs short of her planned set list.
Sharing the bill with McNulty is former James Morrison protégé and ABC recording artist, Sarah McKenzie. Sarah, fresh off a 30 hour flight, has just graduated from the prestigious Berklee College of Music, Boston. From the opening number, its apparent Sarah is an accomplished pianist, providing powerful accentuating chords with her delicate fingerwork adding melody and colour. The highlight of Sarah’s set is ‘Little Boy Blue’, a smoky ballad featuring bass player Alex Boneham. Taking his bow to the bass, Boneham’s strokes add a sombre tone to the production.
The contrast between the two featured singers tonight is fascinating. McNulty, a seasoned performer, possesses a lifetime’s worth of musical inspiration. McKenzie has studied at the right places, been mentored by the very best and has the goods to succeed, but currently lacks the stage years and tour miles of experienced jazz performers.
Stonnington observation #1: Jazz fans don’t know how to queue! Perhaps it’s their predilection for odd time signatures and use of the lateral side of their brain which prevents them from lining up at the bar in a direct formation or maybe it’s just their love of improvisation.
Three days into the festival and it is crooner Vince Jones’ turn to warm the Town Hall stage. Tonight he’s playing with students and faculty members from the Monash University Jazz course with whom he recently recorded.
The first ensemble for the evening kick into a ‘loosener’. The young musicians boast a musical maturity way beyond their years. Jones looks down at his horn, bends to pick it up then decides against it. He seems to recognise it’s the student’s time to shine.
Paul Grabowsky, a professor at the Monash, comes to the piano for ‘Just in Time’ and instantly shows his impeccable touch.
It’s clear Jones is keen to showcase the young talent and leaves the stage for a glorious gospel performance by the Monash Jazz Choir, featuring soloist Belle. By the second half of the gig, Jones has found his groove. With Grabowsky back and Associate Professor Rob Burke summoned to the stage with his saxophone, Jones gets nostalgic with sentimental ballads about an aunt (‘Rainbow Cake’) and his mother (‘This is the Woman’).
Stonnington observation #2: Based on the Monash students’ performances and the depth of understanding of the material, the future of Australian jazz is in good hands.
Chapel Off Chapel is the more intimate of the two main festival venues and is perfectly suited to Mingus Among Us, Steve Fitzmaurice’s nine piece homage to the legendary American bassist and composer Charles Mingus. It’s often said that Mingus was uncompromising in his attitude to jazz and to the integrity of the music. In the spirit of Mingus, the night begins not with a flurry of notes but with a drum solo. Hugh Harvey is able to exhibit his percussive skills early, with some intricate rim and stick work on the evening’s opener ‘Opus Four’. Ensuing tunes allow sax player Tim Wilson and pianist Joe Chindamo their moment in the spotlight.
Amid the sometimes dense multi-layered arrangements, Fitzmaurice’s charts always find space for each instrument to breathe. While the first half of the show had that whiff of a band finding its footing, they emerge in the second half playing with uninhibited ease. ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, a tune which reeks of loneliness, summons the true spirit of Mingus. Fitzmaurice has put together a wonderful ensemble who treat the material with respect and apply their ample talent to it with passion.
Stonnington observation #3: The same guy who gave me my tickets and later served my drink, is now sweeping the theatre floor. Chapel off Chapel staff are versatile!
Into week two of ‘Stonno’ and it’s the debut performance of James Morrison’s Inheritance, a band featuring the incredible David Jones on drums along with Morrison’s two sons, 18 year old William (guitar) and 16 year old Harry (bass). Also featured as guest vocalist is Hetty Kate. After a quick introduction by Australianjazz.net editor Miriam Zolin, the band begin with ‘Days of Wine and Roses’. Morrison looks toward his sons with obvious pride. Merely one song into the set and David Jones is already weaving his magic. He caresses each drum as though with butterflies rather than brushes, such is his finesse. Hetty Kate is introduced to the stage and displays an effortless vocal style. An Antonio Carlos Jobim tune sees Morrison swap from piano to sax, which he plays in a controlled breathy manner. It’s no surprise how talented Morrison’s 16 year old and 18 year old sons are but it’s scary to think how skilled they’ll be given half a dozen stage years. Five songs in and Morrison has already picked up a trumpet, trombone, saxophone and played the piano. ‘Misty’ has William take centre stage his delicate touch characteristic of his father’s playing. David Jones produces a kalimba, aka thumb piano, on the track ‘Chai Party’, a beautiful atmospheric piece. The audience tonight has been treated to something truly special.
Final weekend festivities begin back at Chapel Off Chapel with Paul Williamson’s Hammond Party. Support act Chantal Mitvalsky, a feisty female vocalist flits from jazz ballads to soul and contemporary RnB, while also proving that she’s a songwriter of substance too. At times, Chantal’s phrasing and strength of voice, remind me of Randy Crawford. Finishing up with ‘Bullet’, in a complex time signature, the tune highlights Sam Keevers’ wispy piano touch and Kumar Shome’s slick guitar licks.
Paul Williamson begins his set as part of a humble trio with Tim Neal on Hammond and Mike Jordan on drums. Jeff Lang strolls to the stage to add some tasteful slide guitar to ‘Spoonful’. Musicians in attendance chuckle as drummer Mike Jordan dares to ask for more sax in his monitor. The amiable Bob Sedergreen emerges to stamp his authority on the band with his understated but perfectly chosen notes. Trumpet player Ross Irwin follows, then Dave Palmer on trombone and we’re now at a seven piece big band, as they smoke up the stage like a pack of Chicago gangsters. Special guest Renee Geyer arrives to join the fun and kicks into a couple of blues jams including ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’. After incrementally building to such a big band powerhouse, it’s a nice touch that Williamson chooses to set aside time near the end for just he and Bob Sedergreen, giving the great piano man a much deserved nod of recognition.
Over an eleven day period, I’d seen a lot of jazz, a lot of great jazz. I missed a lot too, such is the extent of the festival’s program. For my final fling I choose the more obscure, a jazz soiree at the Duldig Studio featuring the Janet Arndt Quartet. This gig is as intimate as it gets, seated tightly, surrounded by the studio’s current art exhibition Art Behind The Wire. Arndt and her well-travelled band run through a list of jazz vocal standards, appreciated greatly by the audience made up largely of friends to the studio. This is the other end of the jazz spectrum, those who have already lived a long, rich, jazz life. At Stonnington this year, I also saw the future of Australian jazz and I have to say it’s looking very bright.
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Video by Greg Phillips of Renee Geyer’s special guest appearance with the Paul Williamson Hammond Jazz Party at Stonno