Review: Wangaratta Jazz and Blues Festival 2016

By Kaye Blum

The Ovens River | Photo: Kaye Blum
The Ovens River | Photo: Kaye Blum

As a first-timer to Wangaratta Jazz Festival, this writer had no benchmarks with which to compare its 26 previous events. Which isn’t a bad thing, really. If I hadn’t known the recent heavy rains had threatened this year’s festival, I’d have been none-the-wiser. Fortunately the flood waters receded but some swift program and venue changes to avoid still-sodden outdoor areas were required to ensure it went ahead seemingly without a hitch.

Running from Friday night to Sunday across seven venues, funding cuts meant this year’s program featured mainly Australian acts. There were over 70 performances to choose from, so even without the big international names in the line-up, it was outstanding value for pass holders. The tightly packed schedule meant catching complete sets was the biggest challenge.

I managed to squeeze in at least the first few numbers from 18 of those performances in two days, including the National Jazz Awards finals, won by Sydney saxophonist Michael Rivett. Some shows featured fantastic collaborations, which increased the amount of amazing talent I was able to witness – some for the first time.

Highlights included the sweet voice of Hetty Kate at St Pats Hall singing swing classics with Ben Robertson on double bass, Danny Fischer on drums and Carl Mackey on sax. Their Sunday session at the Pinsent Hotel (this time with Danny Farrugia on drums) absolutely delighted the audience.

Tamara Murphy with Denis and Eugene Ball | Photo: Kaye Blum
Tamara Murphy with Denis and Eugene Ball | Photo: Kaye Blum

A rare chance to see trumpeter Eugene Ball perform alongside his father Denis on clarinet couldn’t be missed. Denis’s impressive credits include playing with the Yarra Yarra Jazz Band, Roger Bell and Frank Traynor. Their terrific line-up included Tamara Murphy on double bass, Sam Keevers on piano, and Ron Sandilands on drums. It was a trad treat.

I had no idea what to expect from Kimba Griffith’s intriguingly titled show, ‘The Songs That Saved Your Life’. The stage at St Pats Hall was dressed with two old TV sets playing videos on the left; on the right, a chair stood alongside a couple of tiny tables topped with journals, tins, and other trinkets. They formed part of Kimba’s intimate tales of teenage angst which she delivered as spoken word, in between singing stunning interpretations of ’90s indie classics. The band, including Tamara Murphy, Ryan Griffith and Niko Schauble, were having as much fun as the audience, rocking out on songs like Nirvana’s Come As You Are and Violent Femmes’ Add It Up.

Cologne-based trombonist Shannon Barnett was back on home turf for the festival with her Quartet including Stefan Karl Schmid on saxophone and clarinet, David Helm on bass and Fabian Arends on drums. She opened with an original composition Chasing the Second, which, she explained, is “about that buzz you get after your second beer… I look forward to mine after this set.” And well earned it was – her energetic performance was enthusiastically received by the full house at St Pats Hall. It was impressive to see her jamming with the Horns of Leroy lads after their gig at the Pinsent – a rose amongst the Horns. 

I overheard locals raving about the Horns’ performance at the Holy Trinity Cathedral on Sunday morning – apparently they had the entire congregation up on their feet (a typical result at their energetic gigs).

The Pierce Brothers | Photo: Kaye Blum
The Pierce Brothers | Photo: Kaye Blum

Other Sunday highlights included the Pierce Brothers at the Blues marquee who, despite the midday rain and mosquitos, drew a great crowd and had them dancing the rain away.

Belinda Woods and Mary Doumany | Photo: Kaye Blum
Belinda Woods and Mary Doumany | Photo: Kaye Blum

The Cathedral was a superb venue for harpist and singer Mary Doumany and flautist Belinda Woods. Their second piece featured Doumany caressing the harp strings with a ribbon as fine as dragonfly wings as her angelic vocalise floated above Woods’ whispers of ethereal flute. Their set of original compositions was dappled with magic and had the audience serenely mesmerised.

Chris McNulty with Steve Newcomb’s Eternal Chamber Ensemble at the Wpac Theatre was also divine.

“I’ll speak later,” said McNulty before opening with an elegantly upbeat interpretation of Nature Boy. “There’s been three manifestations of this ensemble,” she later explains, “This is the original.” It comprised flute, electric bass, cello, violin, Newcomb on piano, Hugh Harvey on drums and Ed Fairlie on flugelhorn and trumpet. The arrangements and orchestration were sublime, a class act – as one would expect for a singer and composer with such an impressive international career.  

Troy Roberts and Matt Jodrell, sitting in with the James Morrison Quartet at the 2016 Wangaratta Festival of Jazz | Photo: Kaye Blum
Troy Roberts and Matt Jodrell, sitting in with the James Morrison Quartet at the 2016 Wangaratta Festival of Jazz | Photo: Kaye Blum

Last but certainly not least, the charismatic James Morrison Quartet presented an exuberant performance with impressive guests including Matt Jodrell on trumpet (and piano), Troy Roberts on sax, and Olivia Chindamo who delivered some sensational scats. The standing ovation they received said it all.

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