MIJF – Celebrating lineage

Michael Tortoni
Artistic Director Michael Tortoni is also a bass player. He's excited to have bassists Renaud Garcia-Fons and Janos Bruneel at the festival this year.

Michael Tortoni and the 2012 Melbourne International Jazz Festival

Bennetts Lane owner Michael Tortoni has been behind the scenes at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival for many years helping to make it happen. This year he’s the Artistic Director of the festival and as he announced the lineup at the official launch in March, it was clear that behind the programming this year are some clear themes – including a celebration of where jazz has come from and where it’s going.

We may not be used to seeing Tortoni ‘front and centre’ at the MIJF but he’s played a role consistently for over a decade now. At the festival launch, he revealed what drives him, saying (twice) that he’s interested in the ‘pairing of jazz royalty with the voices of a rising generation’.

The 2012 Melbourne International Jazz Festival program is missing the unique Overground event that was enjoyed by many in recent years. Also missing from the program, say some critical voices on the street, is a certain ‘edginess’, a sense of boundaries being explored and crossed. However Tortoni is confident about his choices.

‘ Concerts like The Fringe and Tarbaby with Oliver Lake will satisfy those who want to explore the more exciting edges of improvised music. Robert Glasper pushes boundaries and his club gig is already sold out! I think the jazz festival is important, and for me, I don’t want the MIJF to become a world music festival or too commercial. I want it to be a jazz festival. I want jazz royalty to shine and I want to look at the progression of it. As for Overground, it was it was a very interesting event, and the festival may do it again in the future.’

His interest in the continuing story of jazz-taking in past and present- is something he puts down to longevity. He’s been running Bennetts Lane for twenty years and he sees himself as being involved at least to some degree in the discussion of what jazz is, ‘that whole thing of “where’s jazz going?” and “where’s it come from?” and “how’s the baton being passed on?”

These questions form part of an ongoing debate, he says. It’s a lively one and one that he says he quite enjoys.

Asked why he thinks jazz is important, Tortoni says he believes it’s a genre that other genres draw on all the time:

‘Without it you lose an integrity; an important element of art. I mean if improvisation is what stimulates an art form then without improvisation it all kind of falls apart.’

He sees jazz linked inextricably with the experience of great cities and is convinced that MIJF is an important component of the success of Melbourne as a cultural destination:

‘If you think about great cities, you think about their architecture, their food their music, their art. You take New York – jazz is synonymous with New York, Paris the same thing. Chicago, Detroit.’

Jazz is also, he says, intellectual and a niche art form as well as occasionally popular. It’s more popular at times, and less at others. He likes the fact that it’s a little bit ‘niche’, though he admits that as a club owner and artistic director of a jazz festival – he’d sometimes like it to be more popular.

When it comes to programming, Tortoni says he starts with a wishlist, and aims to begin the process a year before each festival. He’s already begun the process for 2013, admitting it’s the first time he’s actually managed to start so far in advance.

As artistic director, the festival Board looks to him to provide guidance, but much of the challenge of programming lies in the intangibles. The responsibility can weigh heavily but years of running a club stand him in good stead.

‘I’ve been doing it for 20 years here at Bennetts Lane and we open the doors every night and based on my experience and instinct, I’ve been calling these sorts of results and touch wood [he taps the table] it’s been good so far. But still, you can’t know, until it happens.’

And of course he acknowledges that the festival team make it possible.

‘Essentially, it’s a team effort. I couldn’t do it on my own. I wouldn’t pretend to be doing it on my own and nor would I want to. It is a big job and there’s a lot of background work that goes on, securing different internationals. It’s complicated by timezones, availability – all sorts of issues.

Getting international acts here may provide some of the biggest logistical challenges of putting the program together, but Tortoni is excited by the kinds of musical experiences they’re able to offer. He believes the collaborations between local musicians and international guests are important to developing our profile globally. This year, some of the combinations we’ll see were planned early on and some just landed in his lap, though he says he’s careful not to rely on the ‘happy accident’ approach to putting a festival together. ‘The McCoy Tyner Coltrane project with Chris Potter and José James means that Chris Potter will be in town. The Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra always wanted to do something with Chris Potter, so that’s worked out really well.’

The JMO will also be commissioning some works from Australian composers for this project.

When asked what excites him about programming the festival, he admits it’s the excitement of ‘actually watching it live, seeing the result, the actual concerts and the actual magic moments that happen during the festival.’

He loves the idea of bringing the ideas on a wishlist into fruition; putting Chris Potter with JMO, seeing the McCoy Tyner trio work with younger musicians like José James. Discussing the McCoy Tyner / José James combination, Tortoni raises his idea of lineage again, referencing the famous 1963 record with Johnny Hartman [John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman Impulse! (1963)] – a single take recording that includes songs that he says ‘have become the definitive standards you hear today.’My one and only love’, ‘Lush Life’… ‘

YouTube: McCoy Tyner Trio with Chris Potter & special guest José James at 2011 Taichung Jazz Festival (23 Oct. 2011) ‘Dedicated to You’  (apologies for all the background chatter on this YouTube – hopefully Melbourne audiences will be listening more intently!)
McCoy Tyner (piano) | Chris Potter (tenor saxophone) | Gerald Cannon (bass) | Joe Farnsworth (drums) | José James (vocal)

And he also comes back again to this idea that jazz informs other art forms, itself a cause for celebration.Look at what we’re doing with ACMI; presenting Terence Blanchard. He’s a great musician, a great trumpeter, he’s got his whole quintet here, he’s artist in residence at Monash University, he has over 50 film credits to his name, and he’s worked extensively with Spike Lee. I’ve had him on my wishlist for years, but it was a matter of availability.’

The other thing that ACMI are doing is screening some Woody Allen films, because, acknowledges Tortoni, Woody Allen is ‘all over jazz.’

‘We were happy to go just with Terence Blanchard and show some of the movies he’s written scores for and have a question and answer with him, and ACMI thought the Woody Allen special event would complement this jazz and film theme.’

He hesitates.

‘ I want the program to have real meaning and relevance to jazz. I don’t like to be too outside the jazz world. I don’t want the threads to get too flimsy or too thin. Film’s okay but you don’t’ want to go out too far… You know, ‘just because the drummer for The Doors was a jazz drummer would we have The Doors at the jazz festival? [laughs] Interesting thought.’ I don’t want to program things just to be different. I want it to be a jazz festival.’

The Melbourne International Jazz Festival runs from 1-10 June.

The program includes local and international musicians, across multiple venues for ten full days. Check the website for program details.

Open Road, Luke Howard and Janos Bruneel (Which Way Music)

I guess my listening is double-bass centric. Of course I’ve been listening to a whole lot of festival stuff but lately there have been a couple of things… Charles Mingus Thirteen Pictures, particularly track four ‘Meditations on Integration, Pt. 1 & 2′. He is an incredible musician and composer. He bows the base beautifully. It’s pure music. I’ve been listening to that quite intently. And the other album that I heard recently and fell in love with is Open Road, a release from Melbourne pianist Luke Howard and Belgian bassist Janos Bruneel (Belgium). Part of the reason I programmed the Renaud Garcia-Fons Trio and Luke Howard & Janos Bruneel is because because bassists Garcia-Fons and Bruneel are each uniquely masters of their instrument, both transcending the technical difficulties of the bass in their own way.

Talking of serendipity, browsing the interweb, we found this great Podcast, featuring  José James talking about his path of musical discovery – part of the Jazz Stories series from the Lincoln Centre >>>>

And here’s a whole page on Terence Blanchard over at ABC Jazz >>>>