The Chelsea Wilson guide to the 2018 Stonnington Jazz Festival

As a singer, Chelsea Wilson is assertive, bold, creative, dedicated and always open to ideas and ways to communicate with the audience. As the artistic director of Stonnington Jazz, she is exactly the same. Now in her third year at the helm, she’s eager to honour the festival’s reputation as a showcase for ‘100% Australian’ jazz and, more importantly, to get the whole of the jazz community involved.

“I’m really passionate about professional development opportunities for artists and I’m also passionate about community involvement and making jazz accessible,” she says, pointing to this edition’s newest element, the Jazz Industry Summit. “There is a lack of talks that focus on jazz specifically,” she explains. “The kind of big industry conferences that happen each year seem to be devoid of jazz, but we have this incredible talent here, so I really wanted to put this together. It is a full day of events for artists as well as industry workers and media to come along and have a conversation about how we can have Australian jazz artists overseas, about touring, about how to best release music when the industry has changed so much.”

Chelsea Wilson, presenting last year’s edition of Stonnington Jazz | Photo: Timothy Burgess

Industry people and professionals from the jazz community are only one part of the audience Chelsea Wilson aims to attract to Stonnington Jazz. “Throughout the program, I want to make sure that there are a range of different activities and programs that suit different audiences,” she says. “We’ve got some family friendly events like the Jazz Jam on Glenferrie Road, and the Jazz Storytime at the Malvern Library, which is aimed to 2-4 year old children. Jazz vocalist Ruth Rogers-Wright will read stories to them, accompanied by Adam Rudegeair on the piano.

As a way to create new audiences, targeting toddlers is certainly a clever one, but when considered alongside the Jazz and Slam Poetry event, it can be seen as an example of pairing jazz with literature. Which brings us to this year’s loose theme, which is a collaboration of jazz and other art forms.

Enter Trichotomy; the Brisbane-based trio comes to Stonnington to present a revamped version of ‘Behind Closed Doors’, their collaboration with Expressions Dance Company. “I’m excited to have contemporary dance as part of the program,” Chelsea Wilson says. “Dance can express human emotions so beautifully!”

Another adventurous trio, Swooping Duck (i.e. the rhythm section of future soul powerhouse Hiatus Kaiyote) are presenting a dialogue between sound and visual art, in collaboration with light sound and media artist Lloyd Marsden – a.k.a. Zero Crossing. “This is another thing I wanted to look into, imagining light and colour as another member of the jazz ensemble, says the festival’s artistic director, talking about this project, which will see Zero Crossing projecting visuals and kaleidoscopic patterns over the band as they play.

“Festivals are great opportunities to create different kind of experiences,” Chelsea Wilson explains. “A lot of jazz venues in town do not have the stages or infrastructure to be able to do something like that, so were very fortunate to have Chapel Off Chapel as a festival hub this year; it has lots of space for the bands to explore.”

The Shaolin Afronauts performing over a screening of ‘Mad Max 2’ at the Astor Theatre, as part of last year’s Stonnington Jazz. | Photo: Timothy Burgess

If Chapel Off Chapel is where most of the Stonnington Jazz events are taking place, there’s another iconic Melbourne venue which is also returning to the festival. Back by popular demand, the Shaolin Afronauts return to the Astor Theatre for the third installment of Mad Jazz, with Kylie Auldist performing Tina Turner’s part. When the band’s leader, Ross McHenry talked about the ‘Mad Jazz’ project last year, he seemed a bit reluctant to come back for ‘Mad Max 3’. “This is definitely going to be the last one,” laughs Chelsea Wilson. “We’re not going to do ‘Fury Road’.”

In terms of the 2018 Stonnington Jazz loose theme, ‘Mad Jazz’ falls into the ‘jazz and cinema’ category – and so does the screening of ‘Beyond el Rocco’, the now-classic documentary about the legendary club that nurtured the Sydney jazz scene for decades. “It is important to celebrate the history of Australian jazz and the legacy of these artists who have been keeping this genre alive,” says Chelsea Wilson. One of these artists is part of the Stonnington Festival; in one of her rare appearances in Melbourne, legend pianist Judy Bailey is coming with her trio to do a special show, ‘At your request‘.

“Judy Bailey is an artist I’ve been aware of for quite some time, but I haven’t seen her live yet, so I’m really excited about the gig,” says Chelsea Wilson, mentioning the pianist’s seminal 1977 album, ‘Colours‘ as an influence, “with its super hip vibes” (samples of which made their way to US rapper Rick Ross’ recent hit, ‘Santorini, Greece‘). As for the ‘At your request’ idea, it is certainly proof that Judy Bailey is not one to hold back.

When I approach artists for the festival, we discuss ideas for special project. So I told her: tell me what you want to do and we’ll make it happen. We could have got her a big band or whatever. But she said that she wanted to come with her trio and do requests. So basically she’s letting the audience pick the songs. We’ll give people pens and paper and they will write down a song that they’d like her to perform. I find it completely terrifying,” she laughs. “As a performer, I dont think Ill ever get to that level.”

Apart from being an Australian jazz icon, Judy Bailey is also a pioneer for women in a male-dominated scene, paving the way for the next generations of female jazz musicians and bandleaders. As Australian jazz becomes more and more inclusive, artists like Claire Cross claim the place they deserve in it. A brilliant bassist and inspired bandleader, Claire Cross brings her band, Surface, to Stonnington Jazz, to present their take on the songbook of Bjork. “Surface is a band I’ve been watching over the past few years and I really wanted to put them in the festival,” says Chelsea Wilson. “They did a version of a Bjork tune and this gave me the idea to ask them if they wanted to do a show of that. I’ve heard a few jazz interpretations of Bjork material over the years, but they have a unique take on the songs. It is not a straight covers show, it is going to sound really eclectic. It came out really well.”

Yes, but why Bjork? “I love Bjork,” she says. “I think she’s one of the greatest artists of the century, she’s very forward thinking and there’s a lot about her musical works that to me aligns with the jazz idiom.”

The idiom itself has been taking a more and more broader meaning overtime, and projects like this highlight it. “Some people are very apprehensive of the word jazz,” says Chelsea Wilson, explaining how her intention for Stonnington Jazz is to have something in there that everyone can relate to. So, what would she say to people to invite them to the Festival? The answer comes immediately: “Be bold, be adventurous and give it a go!”

Stonnington Jazz kicks off with The Jazz Gala on Thursday 10 May. The Festival will run until Sunday 20 May.