A cathartic experience (War Cry @ Stonnington Jazz)

Times are changing. Times have changed. If you haven’t noticed, you probably aren’t paying attention; or you are in denial; or your livelihood depends on things not changing. But it’s beyond your control. It’s beyond anyone’s control. Things are just not what they used to be. We wake up to a new world every day. And that noise you hear? That’s just the old world, refusing to let go, the old world going out with a bang. But make no mistake, it’s happening. The new world is already here. And it took centre stage last night at a rather unexpected place – Chapel off Chapel, the theatre, the Stonnington Jazz Festival Hub.

“I had never seen an all-female jazz ensemble before,” I heard a member of the audience say, after the end of the War Cry performance, at the opening of Stonnington Jazz.

“Yes, but did you think about it, during the show?” Fem Belling replied, wine glass in hand, big blue eyes burning holes in the man’s brain.

“No,” he admitted.

(L-R) Stella Anning, Rita Satch, Cheryl Durongpisitkul, Ellie Lamb, Fem Belling and Odette Mercy | Photo: Kevin Peterson
Claire Cross | Photo: Kevin Peterson
Stella Anning | Photo: Kevin Peterson
Lena Douglas | Photo: Kevin Peterson
(L-R) Sahida Apsara, Kyrie Anderson and Michelle Nicole | Photo: Kevin Peterson
Ellie Lamb | Photo: Kevin Peterson
Cheryl Durongpisitkul | Photo: Kevin Peterson
Kyrie Anderson and Michelle Nicole | Photo: Kevin Peterson

And there you have it – mission accomplished. Artistic Director Chelsea Wilson‘s bold statement proven. Led by the unstoppable force of nature that is Claire Cross, the six brilliant women on stage (drummer Kyrie Anderson, pianist Lena Douglas, guitarist Stella Anning, trombonist Ellie Lamb and saxophonist Cheryl Durongpisitkul) were there to be seen and heard – but it the end it was not about them, it was about their music, this perfect blend of jazz, funk, soul, r’n’b, rock, you name it, creating a beast of a sound, palpable, pulsating, filling up the room, filling up our hearts and minds.

Behind them, a screen, showing messages of empowerment and photos of Australia’s red earth, mixed up with those of inspiring women, from Angela Davis (no, not that one) to Coco Chanel.

Another cohort of inspired, inspiring women took to the stage, one by one sending out a War Cry, singing songs of Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln and Sharon Jones – along with their own originals, all songs that describe what it means to struggle, to fight back, to do your bit to create social change, one note at a time, one verse at a time.

Michelle Nicole and Racerage | Photo: Kevin Peterson
Racerage | Photo: Kevin Peterson
Fem Belling | Photo: Kevin Peterson
Fem Belling | Photo: Kevin Peterson
Odette Mercy | Photo: Kevin Peterson
Odette Mercy and Fem Belling | Photo: Kevin Peterson
Fem Belling and Sahida Apsara | Photo: Kevin Peterson
Sahida Apsara | Photo: Kevin Peterson
Claire Cross | Photo: Kevin Peterson

“Not too much swing there,” another member of the audience observed. To which there are two-three responses.

1. Who cares?

2. Who says that ‘swing’ is essential to jazz, particularly today?

3. Did you hear Michelle Nicole, her phrasing and voice incorporating all the sub-genres and evolution of jazz, from swing to bop to contemporary improvisation, like the national jazz treasure that she is?

Our bonafide jazz ambassadress was joined by an eclectic mix of singers, representing different traditions (and nobody else than Chelsea Wilson could probably manage to bring such a group together): soul powerhouse Odette Mercy, a commanding presence who takes the audience by force and lifts them high; Fem Belling, embracing her own anger over social injustice in front of our eyes; Rita Satch, singing Gregory Porter’s ‘1960 What?’ with a slow simmer that gradually evolved into a sonic fireball; rapper Racerage, her soft-spoken delivery contrasting to the confronting truths of her words; and Sahida Apsara, proving that poetry is not to be read, it is to be heard, it is to be immersed into, like entering the sea; you need to let the words nurture you.

By the end of the performance, music words, voices, horn and guitar solos, were blended together, offering that thing that is essential in any artistic performance – and that seems to be missing so often, nowadays: catharsis.

Why are these songs not being performed more often? Why don’t bands feel the need to play ‘1960 What?’, ‘Ain’t Got No/ I’ve Got Life’ or even the feelgood celebration of art and creativity that is ‘The Music is the Magic’?

More importantly, why isn’t this show already planned to go on tour around Australia and the world? Why isn’t it going to schools? It should be.

And you should go see it. Tonight.

This was a Public Service Announcement.