Melbourne International Jazz Festival 2014 (May 30-June 8, 2014)
Review by Greg Phillips
The 2014 Melbourne International Jazz Festival program underlined the true diversity of the jazz music genre. The magnitude of this year’s event was made evident by the number of wonderful shows I wasn’t able to attend as much as by the quality of those I did experience.
Tilman Robinson: The Agony of Knowledge
With a simple sequence of two repetitive piano notes, Tilman Robinson’s world premiere opus, The Agony of Knowledge began my festival, while Charles Lloyd Sky Trio played at the Melbourne Recital Centre. As recipient of the 2014 PBS Young Elder of Jazz Award, Robinson had earned the right to perform his ambitious piece on the festival’s opening night at Bennetts Lane. Based on an 800 year old Nordic poem, the work is an epic, evocative, moodscape. While the main refrain, played by all, is the obvious hero, Tilman’s arrangement made provision for individual and duo brilliance too. The soulful harmonies between Tilman on muted trombone and the clarinet of Aviva Endean added great pathos to the musical tale. Equally impressive was the percussive conversation between percussionist Leigh Fischer and Jonathon Heibron on double bass. Tilman swapped confidently from brass to electronics, all the while keeping an eye on his orchestra and guiding them through to the end of his triumphant expedition.
One of the best things about this festival was the number of ways you could obtain your jazz fix. Not only could you experience the headline acts in concert but you could also witness many of them in informative ‘In Conversation’ sessions or ‘Artist Workshops’. I attended a workshop by fabled American guitar man Larry Carlton at the Victorian College of the Arts. Carlton played several tunes spotlighting his delicate touch and nimble fingers. He also thoughtfully answered questions from the floor and demonstrated a little guitar technique.
Larry Carlton Quartet / Here and Now
The next night, Carlton was at the Melbourne Recital Centre in concert mode. The Australian support act, Here and Now provided a taste of exotica to begin with. Featuring David Jones (drums), Andrea Keller (piano), Evripides Evripidou (bass), Alex Pertout (percussion) and the amazing Nilusha Dassenaike on vocals, this group of accomplished musicians was able to transport the audience to worlds beyond the walls of the Recital Centre. The supernatural bass sounds conjured by Evripidou were the perfect abetment to Dassenaike’s middle-eastern flavoured vocal gymnastics.
For his concert, Larry Carlton strode to the stage alone and launched into two mood pieces, one being the beautiful ‘Song For Katie’ from his 1982 album Sleepwalk before introducing Melbourne based drummer Gerry Pantazis and bassist Craig Newman to kick into a spirited blues tune. Another Melbourne fusion mainstay, Phil Turcio completed the quartet and the dynamic level instantly rose a notch. At times during the gig, Carlton’s facial expressions portrayed genuine delight at the tasteful musical expression coming from his Australian band. Carlton performed tunes from various periods of his solo career, including the pioneering fusion days of the ‘70s through to more recent recordings. Whichever piece he played, it possessed his unmistakable soft touch, fretboard agility and warm tone.
Joshua Redman Quartet / Joe Chindamo Trio
Fresh from his celebrated appearance at The Stonnington Jazz Festival, Joe Chindamo – the father of Australian jazz cool – led his trio to the Recital Centre stage as support act to American sax player Joshua Redman. Beginning with an impish tinkle of the ivories, Chindamo kicked into the standard ‘Cheek to Cheek’. His half-hour set consisted mainly of jazz standards, however Joe offered only a few identifying bars of each tune’s motif. His forays outside the melody were far-reaching, wide and exciting. Danny Fischer’s creativity and energy on drums and Phil Rex’s depth of touch on bass combined to make this trio’s support slot one of the most entertaining of the festival.
The evening’s main act, the Joshua Redman Quartet, was then introduced by the festival’s Artistic Director Michael Tortoni. Over the next hour and a half, Redman showed that he’s a skilled and versatile saxophonist, delivering a mix of fluid melodic runs, staccato pops and Coltrane-style squeals. Redman worked up a sweat, stamping his feet and raising his knee to accentuate notes. He was generous in showcasing his quartet too. Bassist Reuben Rogers dug deep for his emotive notes and seemed to be asking more of the bass than it wanted to give. The masterful Aaron Goldberg on piano and Gregory Hutchinson on drums also displayed their wizardry.
Julien Wilson Quartet / Nock and Pike
Armed with bravado, skill, passion and a little technology, pianist Mike Nock and percussionist Laurence Pike set off on their improvisational journey at The Malthouse with scant regard for a destination. The night’s performance was all about reaction, responding to each other’s musical conversation and taking from it whatever the moment required. The artistry of Pike’s playing was mesmerising. One minute using brushes and sticks to conjure intriguing percussive textures, the next using mallets to create lines usually filled by a double bass. If Nock’s melodic thoughts couldn’t be matched with a piano key, he’d look to the piano’s strings or synthesiser instead. The sounds in his head had to find an outlet somehow. To listen individually they may have been playing completely different tunes but collectively it all made sense … well, to a majority of the crowd anyway. Such avant-garde improvisation is not for everyone but kudos to these musicians for free-falling with such spirit.
Those who found the Nock and Pike style of jazz a little too experimental may have found solace in the more conventional Julien Wilson Quartet… Perhaps that was the thinking behind the unusual pairing of these two acts. Wilson seemed genuinely delighted to have New York-based Barney McAll (piano) and locals Jonathan Zwartz (bass) and Allan Browne (drums) beside him on stage. This was a ballad-heavy set showcasing Wilson’s sublime saxophone tones. Heartfelt tributes to recently passed jazz identities Bernie McCann and Gil Askey were a noble gesture applauded fervently by the audience. Whether by stick, brush or hand, the much-loved Allan Browne was intent on being a team player, forever complementing his band members’ contributions. His impulsive calls of ‘yeah’, added real personality and warmth to the music. To end, Wilson swapped from saxophone to clarinet for ‘Farewell’, a beautiful and fitting ballad.
Chick Corea and Gary Burton
The 2014 MIJF had offered an array of music from soloists, trios, quartets, big bands and more. For the festival’s final night performance it came down to just a duo, two of the most revered names in jazz, Chick Corea (piano) and Gary Burton (vibraphone). No support act was required as the two legends walked to their instruments and immediately revealed their genius. ‘Love Castle’ from the pair’s first album radiated beauty as Burton’s mallets glided softly across the vibraphone. Throughout the night they saluted the greats from Brubeck and Getz to Bill Evans and Jobim, stopping occasionally to share the tales behind the tunes. Both artists played with dexterity and soul, filling the gaps between each other’s notes, rarely stepping on the same beat. The music was as complex as it was magnificent and roused the audience to a standing ovation.
Over the 10 day duration of the festival I’d encountered orthodox jazz rhythms, experimental jazz and music that you could argue was not jazz at all. Had I selected a different schedule of artists, I may have had a totally different festival experience altogether, such was the variety of shows on offer. What I did take away from it all was a heightened appreciation for the skill of the musicians involved (particularly the drummers) and a gratitude for their perpetual pursuit of excellence in jazz.