Loz Irwin-Ray invites you to “giggle, squirm and sing along” to nostalgic tunes from the ’40s

You may know Loz Irwin-Ray as a singer, with a flair for jazz and improvisation, fronting a few of adventurous outfits. You may have also know her as a bassist, often featuring in a variety of bands from all genres. Now she has made the next step in her trajectory in arts, being the musical director for one of the most uplifting, feelgood shows featured in this year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival. 40s A Decade of Variety is a journey into time – taking the audience back to the era of big bands and radio stars, when people resorted to film and music to lift their spirits and heal the WWII wounds. Leading an all-star, all-female band, Loz Irwin-Ray dived into the 1940s music trove and made sure to do justice to the material, but also give it a contemporary twist. Here is what she had to say about it.

Loz Irwin Ray

What is ‘40s A Decade of Variety?

It is a Melbourne Fringe Festival variety show run by MBCTA Theatre. Out of the turmoil brought about by WWII, some of the most enjoyable and wondrous acts were created to remind us all of the beauty in the world. This 1940s era piece aims to recreate and pay tribute to such wondrous acts including comedy skits, songs and dances, that will make audiences revel in nostalgia of a decade gone by.

How did you get involved?

An old friend of mine who was asked to put the show together, as well as direct it, hit me up for the role of Musical Director. I jumped at the opportunity straight away, rapidly contacting each of the proposed band members, who were all delighted to come on board. It is my first gig as a Musical Director for a theatre show, and I’m incredibly humbled and lucky to have such a wonderful team around me.

What would you say to people to invite them to the show?

Set an evening (or Sunday afternoon) aside for you and the family to giggle, squirm and sing along to two wonderful acts of entertainment. It’s been a real hit for the 70+ audience members, so bring along the grandparents!

Boogie Woogie gals
Mel Taylor, Selene Messinis and Harriett Allcroft.

How did the first weekend of performances go?

The first weekend was a blast! The most common feedback we’ve received is that people really enjoyed the show, and that the live band made it an even more memorable night of entertainment. One great surprise has been the audience members that sing along to our tunes, especially those who were either born in or not long after the 40s. It tells us that we’ve really hit the nail on the head in an effort to recreate 1940s jazz standards. This weekend, the show will be a little bit tighter, and we’re also mixing up Friday’s line up featuring myself on a number of vocal tunes.

How did you approach the material?

With great excitement! I’m a big nerd when it comes to arranging, so spending countless hours staring at a Sibelius screen is actually me in one of my happiest states. Once deciding on the repertoire (in collaboration with the vocalists Harriett, Mel and Selene), I began researching various classic and modern versions of the jazz standards.

40s A Decade of Variety from AustralianJazzNet on Vimeo.

The arrangements range from ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy‘,which stays fairly true to the Andrew Sisters’ recordings, through to ‘Caravan’, where I basically pulled the melody apart and recreated the song into a whirling, cinematic and circus-like instrumental piece.

What is the appeal of the ’40s music and culture?

I think, for me anyway, being from a very 21st century world, the show serves for a moment of escapism, where we get to dress up and play a person that would otherwise no longer exist. The interesting twist though, which makes me realise how far we’ve come since the 1940s, is that an all-female band would never have been dreamed of in that era. It’s quite an exciting (and still somewhat rare!) sight to see a bunch of women playing the old classics.

1940's melb fringe band
Harriett Allcroft, Loz Irwin-Ray, Mel Taylor, Ellie Lamb, Laura Kirkwood and Selene Messinis

How did you choose musicians for the band?

I picked the best people for the job – my criteria being fantastic musician, great hang, wonderful professionalism and solid group dynamic. Lucky for me, I’m surrounded by a bunch of incredible musicians/colleagues who fit the bill, and all happen to be women. Each of these musicians bring their own unique musical experience and background to the band. We have our multi-instrumentalists Mel Taylor on vocals and trumpet; triple threat Selene Messinis on piano, vocals and alto saxophone; as well as Harriett Allcroft on vocals, Ellie Lamb on trombone, Laura Kirkwood on drums and myself on double bass.

Did you want to make a statement by picking an all-female band?

Aside from the aforementioned reasons of them being right for the job, I’m a big believer in acting on what you say. Those who know me will know I’m a feminist at heart, I want to see women alongside men at all levels of power, politics and music. When given the choice of who to call for the gig, I hope people start thinking of the ones they don’t see on the bandstand as often. Give people the opportunity and they will rise to the occasion. That’s one way to spark change in the jazz and greater musical community, when it comes to gender inequality. I also hope younger women who see this show’s band realise that being a working musician is an option for them – role models are the key! Back to the band though, this group of 20somethings make up a collective of absolutely stellar music careers, and I see them as core members of Australia’s music scene (jazz and beyond) now and in years to come.

What has your own experience, as a woman in music been?

Starting out predominantly as a vocalist, there was a real sense of needing to earn your stripes in the jazz world. I think this is initially true for all musicians, but I believe there’s an extra step or two required in the ladder for women (instrumentalists or vocalists) to gain respect in the scene. In the broader music scene, I have faced numerous sexist encounters, regardless of whether I’m playing an instrument or singing alone. This has definitely been fuel to the fire, leading to my studying of gender and women’s studies in my Arts degree. I admire musicians who don’t see gender but see the person, their musicality on their instrument and their potential.

How does this fit in with your other projects?

For myself, it’s been great fun taking a back seat in this project, playing in the rhythm section without also being a lead singer. Picking up bass only three years ago, I’ve enjoyed playing a supporting role in various bands (with Oliver Downes, Carli James and Daina Demillo) this year, while still being a front person of Market Lane, Sirens and Heads Down Thumbs Up. All of our other band members (Harriett Allcroft, Mel Taylor, Ellie Lamb, Selene Messinis and Laura Kirkwood) have numerous awesome projects that are well worth checking out too!

How did you get into jazz?

I was initially introduced to jazz by my piano and singing teachers in school – Billanook College. After spending years developing a love for music, I went on to complete the Jazz Performance degree at Monash University on vocals. As a 16-year-old who fell in love with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Chet Baker, I was able to cultivate a broader idea of what jazz and improvised music can be at university. Leaning more towards the improvisation side of the broad umbrella of jazz, I perform regularly in a duo, Sirenswho plays 100 per cent improvised music and sound scapes in various pockets of Melbourne’s northside, as well as incorporating improvisation into many of the other bands I regularly perform in. To me, improvisation is a form of self-expression and even at times self-care, saying what you needed to say, getting stuff off your chest and having a musical conversation with like-minded people.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

Nina Simone’s take on Bob Dylan’s ‘The times are a-changing’.

40s, a Decade of Variety is presented this weekend as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival