Review by John Clare
Marcel Proust in his great search for lost time talks about the duality of feeling he experienced whenever he went on holidays with his mother or grandmother – how, beneath the excitement of change – the anticipation of different and perhaps brand new sensations – lay a reluctance, even a kind of dread, in relinquishing the familiar. For surely the familiar is fresh in the light cast by anticipation of the new.
For me it begins at Central Station. Sydney that is. There is the newspaper, and Robert Hughes’s Barcelona, in case I grow bored with staring out the window That is a long way off. They are my security blankets. Of course I am off to Wangaratta and this is the way I feel every year, and excepting the year I was dying and abandoned the train just before it began to roll, I always feel the same excitement. The train is beginning to rock now and bump through the strange and familiar tundra region just beyond most major railway stations.
You know the rest.
Here I am. I am not the only one to have remarked how music sounds different – clearer, fresher – at Wangaratta. Outside my bay window in Sydney is a distorted but large and impressive bottle brush tree, which sometimes attracts the green-winged, mauve-headed, sunset-breasted rainbow lorikeet, who sups at the cone-shaped blooms. Here the scarlet spines on those blooms are dishevelled, soft and often broken. The same tree in Wangaratta is not twisted. Its spines are stiffer, larger, as though they had been cut and shaped by a machine. It takes a moment or two to accept them as organic. They are somewhat unreal, yet thrilling in the clear air of the rural city. And the music can be like that.
The two premier international guests are the trumpeter Enrico Rava and drummer Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts. Such shrewd and exciting choices which no other festival in Australia would be likely to make. This is Wangaratta’s 25th year.
What does Rava sound like outside the ECM studios? On Saturday he played first with his Italian Quintet – which included two phonies. There is a vicious rumour that pianist Paul Grabowsky is actually Polish, though the resemblance to Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski is small. Drummer Niko Schäuble is a German. Frank Di Sario is maybe, maybe not. Never mind, tenor saxophonist Mirko Guerrini is unmistakably Italian (the suit, the beautiful suit!) and there is something Latinate about Rava himself. The set was free play, mainly on standards.
Guerrini is a very elegant yet emotionally forceful and inventive player. Grabowsky plays effectively and more often than not brilliantly in almost any situation. His alertness and sparkling fluency was well deployed here. While slashing passionately in a thrilling high register, dropping away in a series of vertiginous falling burbles or sustaining said bubbling clusters and repeating them hard on top of each other in a tape loop effect, Rava also ruminated in an extraordinary round, edgeless and vocal flugel horn-like sound which exerted a physical pressure while evoking a mysterious remoteness beyond the sound itself. Sure, you can hear Miles, but Rava is undoubtedly present. This was a bracing series of statements and interactions, with some sustained shrieks breaking up the elegance from Guerrini, some sudden flairs of volume, sudden drops in same unanimously from the ensemble. The chills began to run up the spine into my hair. Until certain patterns began to be too predictably repeated. The best was to come from Rava, although I heard that he had played beautifully with the very impressive Monash University band. I briefly heard them – playing beautifully – as I headed for the train home on Monday morning.
But let us go back to the morning, just before hearing the pseudo Italians. Early in the morning at the Pinsent Hotel, drummer Allan Browne and singer and pianist Margie Lou Dyer led their band through mostly New Orleans tunes (with one classic by Margie’s father, Wocka Dyer). The trumpeter Eamon McNelis is a smallish, neatly made fellow. When the band hit their straps, swinging so hard in that way that is like no other, he seemed to rise out of himself while stamping like a pony. And so did the others seem to rise out of themselves. Julien Wilson’s clarinet rising and sustaining high above, bright as a magnesium flare. Allan Browne’s intent battery – in these circumstances he uses his dadaistic Baby Dodds kit, Margie Dyer’s boogily bluesy, genuinely funky piano and a voice full of shredding bark and fragrant powder. At this point I knew that I would be very surprised if I heard anything better than this.
We saw and heard. In the WAPC Theatre, not my favourite room for sound, the trio Drub broke all the bounds of taste and restraint. That in itself is a tedious claim. Turned art on its head, went beyond jazz etc. etc. This was simply so hard, powerful, unleashed, but with so much talent informing it. Trumpeter Scott Tinkler began playing alone, with a series of flying but stentorian notes, mainly semi quavers in the old lingo, hard as hell but beautifully articulated, sweeping about through a relatively confined dynamic and pitch range but suddenly slipping up into an extreme register and really screaming or just holding a high note softly as a flute. It was like being spray painted with radioactive particles, until the sudden brass belches and screams. Then. Blam! Drummer Simon Barker stepped in angrily, then stepped back and guitarist Carl Dewhurst began a kind of subterranean grumbling and groaning like a lava flow crushing all before it. Barker’s drums were now in apoplexy yet oddly cool at the same time. Sometimes they shake like a pan of gravel being washed madly by an enraged prospector. The fact that Barker rarely raises his hands and never flails yet achieves extraordinary power heightens this antic impression. Chaos? Oh yes. Chaos is hard to sustain at this level. At the same times they stopped dead with telepathic unanimity. The shock of silence was sometimes broken by a high ting of percussion or a guitar paang at a very musical interval from the core of preceding and subsequent noise.
To try to describe more of the gurgling slamming texture, the momentum which suddenly took off like bounding boulders or struggled at high speed in a series of tight convulsive spasms would be counter-productive. You can see I am excited. Without taking my eyes off the stage I saw Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts and his wife Laura come in, in line with my left shoulder. I never looked at them directly but saw in peripheral vision that they stayed to the end. And yep, I thought this was the very best, but there were many memorable performances, some of which I will race through.
The talent-crammed Australian Art Orchestra presented an ambitious multi-media portrait of Louis Armstrong, composed and arranged by trumpeter Eugene Ball, who played magnificently throughout. I had just arrived, my wallet was back at Central Station (and had been stripped as it turned out) and while I was much impressed I would love to hear this again and then say something about it. Sorry. I’m sure others will comment. The performance by James Greening’s Greening From Ear to Ear was very beautiful, likewise Rava playing with Niko Schauble’s Papa Carlo (this was the Rava highlight for me: to hear Rava with Steve Magnusson was worth losing my money and cards for), Lisa Parrott’s visit was wonderful. I loved Laura Watts’s performance with husband Tain, with guest Zac Hurren among others. Her compositions were great and I really liked her pocket trumpet playing, despite or perhaps because of some frailty in certain areas. Tain Watts was of course a revelation at each appearance.
Despite listening exhaustion I remained excited until the end. This was a superb festival, like so many over 25 years.