2018 Melbourne International Jazz Festival: the Modern Masters step in

For the past few years, the Melbourne International Jazz Festival programming had a somewhat obvious pattern: you’d get a couple of veterans from the ’60s (the ‘jazz elder’ type), a few younger superstars (from the ‘Young Lions’ tribe to the current crop) a crowdpleaser vocalist or two, and a small army of new, exciting acts to discover, scattered in the club sessions, among the other army, that of the local scene, doing its best and often proving to be better than many international acts. It’s a fail-proof recipe, really. But this time round, something’s missing.

Marshall Allen and the Sun Ra Arkestra

This year’s program has no ‘Jazz Elders’, no keepers of the straight-ahead jazz tradition, safeguarding the legacy of Miles and Trane and the lot. Sure, it features jazz-funk legend Maceo Parker, brilliantly paired with the Meltdown, one of Melbourne’s hottest bands, in a tribute to Ray Charles. But Maceo is not technically a ‘jazz master’; his claim to fame was his stint with the J.B. horns – a great legacy, but not part of the jazz canon. What about Marshall Allen? At the age of 93 the saxophonist has definitely earned the title of ‘Jazz Elder’; still, what he represents, as the leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra is definitely not part of the jazz canon – in fact, it’s the exact opposite. Sun Ra himself had always been seen as an anomaly within the jazz world, to the point that the term which describes his artistic output and vision, ‘afrofuturism’, was coined after his demise. So no, this time round, the jazz elders are not preachers of the jazz word. And this is a good thing. Because it’s time we stopped worrying about the jazz canon. And it is time we let others take the mantle of the jazz master. It’s time we let the Modern Masters step in and give their own definition of jazz.

And this is why it is important that the 2018 Melbourne International Jazz Festivals features three brilliant artists in its ‘Modern Masters’ section. Terri Lyne Carrington, Christian McBride and Branford Marsalis share some common traits. They are all adept at both ‘straight jazz’ styles and the urban r’n’b-infused sub-genres, easily stepping in and out of these worlds, blending elements, mixing things, creating new music. By doing so, they all helped redefine jazz and keep it relevant. Branford has done this for three decades now, and he still remains the most interesting and adventurous of the Marsalis clan. Christian McBride has built an impressive body of work, covering all range from big band jazz to the still unbeatable free-jazz-meets-hip-hop epic that was ‘Live at Tonic’. His ‘New Jawn’ is a stellar pianoless quartet, featuring Marcus Strickland, Josh Evans and Nasheet Waits. And Terri Lyne Carrington, arguably the best jazz drummer of her generation, has managed, only in the past few years, to produce albums that prove she’s on top of her game leading the jazz conversation; in ‘Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue’ she re-imagined and expanded Duke Ellington’s masterpiece (no mean feat) and with her ‘Mosaic Project’ albums she showed the way for women in jazz. She comes to the festival with her Social Science project, featuring modern legends like Aaron Parks and Matthew Stevens, and tackling issues like freedom, sexism, racism and multiculturalism.

Chris Dave

So yes, these modern masters certainly set the tone of the Festival, which is definitely groove-centered and irreverent. And if this is what the ‘mainstream’ section of MIJF has to offer, you can imagine what happens in the more adventurous sections. The ‘Explorations in Jazz’ section is full of groove-oriented acts, not at all concerned with ‘jazz’ purity. The program boasts of new faces such as Yemen Blues, Knower or the soul-jazz superstar drummer Chris Dave, coming with his ‘Drumhedz’ to present his polyrhythmic r’n’b extravaganza.

If these acts represent the best that US has to offer, European jazz is represented by the Italian firebrand Francesco Cafiso,Norwegian experimentalist Kim Myer, in collaboration with Peter Knight and the Australian Art Orchestra and the rising star of the UK jazz scene, saxophonist Nubya Garcia. Make sure not to miss her. Seriously.

There’s more, of course.The Chok Kerong Trio is coming from Singapore, while The Gravity Project brings together contemporary Japanese improvisers Masaki Nakamura and Kuniko Obina with Aaron Choulai and Paul Grabowsky, who is also playing with The Others, his surprise trio with James Morrison and Kram from Spiderbait. Another interesting trio features American sax master Tony Malaby with Canadian pianist Kris Davis and Australian national treasure Simon Barker. Harry James Angus will present his jazz-gospel opus, inspired by the Greek Mythology. Brenton Foster is this year’s PBS Young Elder of Jazz. And the Rookies will lead the late night jam session every night, for the whole ten days of the Festival.
All in all, we’re talking about400 Artists, playing in 26 venues (fewer jazz clubs participating this year, none in the CBD, which is a shame) – the Jazz Out West section alone would qualify to be a festival of its own.

The 2o18 Melbourne Jazz Festival will close with a certified crowdpleaser, Madeleine Peyroux and her smokey blues-folk-country fusion. But there’s another singer that I left for last, the very beautiful Gretchen Parlato, the best vocalist to have come out of the US in the past who-knows-how-many years, who has made an art form out of humming. She features in the Modern Masters section. Of course she is.

More info about the 2018 Melbourne International Jazz Festival here