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by Tony Roma
posted 08/11/2017

2017 Wangaratta Festival Of Jazz

28 years strong and still full of surprises!

Reviewed by Phil James

The 2018 Wangaratta Festival of jazz and blues (Wang.) was a story of the big and small, electronics and prerecording, continuing contributions by women, particularly from expat Aussies, new and proven talent. It did what festivals are meant to do. It provided an audience worthy of grand new works and artistic collaborations not served well by being restricted to the confines of the small urban music club. Wang. also provided the opportunity to create a jazz and blues smorgasbord, and as is true of “all you can eat” (or in this case all you can hear) one is prone to over-indulge. Like many others, I found myself dashing feverishly from one musical dish to another.

No one worked harder at Wang. than trumpeter / composer Nadje Noordhuis. Originally from Melbourne but resident in NY for past 14 years. One minute in partnership with long time collaborator, vibe player and percussionist James Shipp, the next with a quartet, and on another day a quintet. All this as well as acting as one of the National Jazz Award judges, and opening the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival on Nov. 8

Melbourne saxophonist Angela Davis also demonstrated the benefit of having spent several years in the U.S. She really warmed up an otherwise acoustically cold St Pats Hall with her beautiful compositions and sensitive quartet.

Another talent featuring at the SIWJF who gave two performances was multi instrumentalist, vocalist, storyteller extraordinaire Jun Shyu. It wasn’t jazz (or blues) but those who caught one of her two shows were completely mesmerized.

At the Blues tent on opening night Northern Territory’s Caiti Baker and her band (with a little help from prerecorded guitars and backup vocals) gave great renditions of tunes from her latest terrific album “Zinc”. She threw in a couple of covers from Amy Winehouse and Irma Thomas for good measure. I predict BIG things for Miss Baker.

Other highlights at the Blues Tent (besides the excellent food and beverage vendors!) were the very credible vocal and guitar impression of Jimi Hendrix by Shannon Bourne; and the barnstorming gumbo sounds of funk, r&b and soul from Jon Cleary and The Absolute Monster Gentlemen. Anyone who can get my world weary body up and boogieing has to be admired.

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Two acts epitomized the beauty of jazz from alternative ends of the spectrum, composed versus improvised, large combo versus small, sensitive versus raucous. The cue of excited fans waiting outside the WPAC Theatre on Sunday afternoon was the longest of the festival for Jonathan Zwartz and his octet, a proverbial superband of Australian jazzers. As a composer, bass player and band leader, Zwartz’a two previous albums have won him legions of fans. His beautifully imagined and executed new music didn’t disappoint them. The other spectacular performance, one that came as a complete surprise (at least to this listener) was the collaboration between Spiderbait’s drummer Kram, horn player James Morrison and pianist / keyboard player Paul Grabowsky. This was improvised music of the very, very highest standard. Technically brilliant, emotionally exciting, sexy as all hell, and appropriately loud. It may not be re-creatable in a studio but I for one would live to see them try.

Nobody could accuse Barney McAll of not putting his all into his latest opus. The cover of his new album “Hearing the blood”, features an illustration on the cover painted apparently using his own blood….literally. His album, and the performance at Wang, feature a similar line-up to Jonathan Zwartz’s band. Clearly these guys are very familiar with each other and their intuitive understanding and flawless techniques did justice to McAll’s latest wonderful compositions.

Kram was the centre of another quirky collaboration that worked brilliantly. His own band Spiderbait lit up the Blues Tent when backed by an assembly of some 50 horn players, most from college bands. “Black Betty” never sounded so heavy.

The National Jazz Award, for horn players this year was won appropriately I think by the trombone player James Macauley. Another rising star in the making.

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A final word about electronics which is becoming an increasing presence in both recorded and live jazz. Headline performer Christian Scott and his sensational band were almost overwhelmed in my mind by the loud prerecorded music used in their opening pieces. When about three-quarters of the way through the set, Mr Scott announced “we’re gonna play some jazz”, the completely live and largely improvised tune that followed was the highlight for me.

Aron Ottignon (making his first appearance since being a National Jazz Award finalist in 1999) and his trio closed the festival Sunday night with music in originality and wit (if not style) that echoed the Kram Morrison Grabowsky outing the night before. Although clearly emanating from the quirky imagination, percussive piano wizardry and electronic hocus pocus of Ottignon, his percussion / drumming partners of Cuba Goods and Samuel Dubois were worthy and exciting cohorts. Ottignon’s debut on the Blue Note label, “Team Aquatic”, is well worth a listen.

Congratulations to all the organizers, the town of Wangaratta, and especially the new artistic team of Adam Simmons, Zoe Hauptmann, Frank Davidson and Scott Solimo. I’ve only touched on a handful of the over 100 performances that they curated and balanced brilliantly. I’m really looking forward to 2018.

My partner and I arrived late to the Sunday Jazz Mass, a must if you attend Wang. It was hard to even get into the large Cathedral. But we slinked right up to the front and sat self-consciously on the foor. We were soon kindly offered seats by people willing to squeeze up a little. A few moments later, I was singing a hymn and the rather elegantly dressed lady next to me whispered in my ear “you have a lovely voice”. I thanked her with a smile and a nod. When later she took the stage to perform as one of the Gospel Belles, I was flattered and humbled. None other than Kelly Auty saying had complimented my singing. Now that is praise indeed. Just one of many unforgettable highlights of the 2018 Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues.

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