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ROGER MITCHELL

MIJF — Day 2

IT was a dilemma: the hardly ever serious Actis Dato at BMW Edge or the seriously promoted and popular Katie Noonan’s Blackbird Project at Hamer Hall, along with the boys from FGHR (drummer Daniel Farrugia, guitarist Leonard Grigoryan, pianist Luke Howard and bassist Ben Robertson) in the supporting role. As usual, I timed things badly, dropping in to hear the Italian antics, but leaving in a bid to catch FGHR. Bad move, because the half-hour interval at Hamer Hall began soon after I arrived.

Actis Dato (Carlo Actis Dato, sax and bass clarinet, Beppe Di Filippo, alto saxophone, Daniele Bertone, drums, Matteo Ravizza, electric bass) launched energetically into what might have been titled “Pantas del Fuego” (suggesting visions of flaming trousers, but billed as a northern Italian political song), which was loads of fun. With verve and vitality they set feet tapping, repeating rhythmic patterns and indulging in lots of pointing, jumping and hip shaking. Was there a screaming blowfly on stage?

A face-off began Perestroika, with the horn players folding their arms as they eyed each other in mock aggression. It seemed so full-on that I wondered whether they would ever vary the pace. In what might have been titled Che Guevara, the horns were in unison, the drummer did some pa rum pum pum pum, al la the Little Drummer Boy, and the guitarist seemed to make his presence felt.

Actis Dato seemed to be drawing on folk, gypsy and African influences, but the categories are irrelevant. It was racy and often raucous, but also beautifully melodic and engagingly rhythmic.

So, off to the Hamer Hall, where the interval was uneventful. Then, Katie Noonan’s Blackbird Project — the songs of Lennon McCartney — brought us 12 songs plus an encore, with Zac Hurren on tenor sax, Sam Keevers (who wrote the charts) on piano, Stephen Magnusson (is he everywhere?) on guitar, Brett Hirst on bass and Simon Barker on drums. They were all in suits — except Katie.

To put my cards on the table, and no discredit to Katie Noonan, but I’m not a fan of her voice, though many people seem to love its purity. The audience reaction seemed positive, but I wondered how fans of the original songs reacted to these interpretations. In Yesterday, Noonan’s voice was the only source of melody, which might have challenged some. And in the instrumental Norwegian Wood, Hurren seemed too abrasive and the arrangement too out there for such a beautiful song.

I began to warm to the project by the seventh song, Across the Universe, when Magnusson was (as always) magnificent and Noonan’s voice soared up with the special-effects smoke for the line “nothing’s gonna change my world”. And in Lennon’s In My Life, there was more guts and feeling to Noonan’s vocals, backed by great guitar.

When Noonan sang her favourite lyric — “Each one believing that love never dies, Watching her eyes and hoping I’m always there” — in Here There and Everywhere, accompanied by only guitar and bass, the result was most effective. What was happening? Some great solos in Fool on the Hill were followed by Noonan showing much more of the depth and power of her voice in The Long and Winding Road, ending with great expression in the line “lead me to your door”. Was I being won over?

In Eleanor Rigby there was heaps of energy, with variations in the timing and rhythm, Hurren going for it on sax and Magnusson standing for a solo before Noonan delivered some rapid-fire v0cals and sustained notes. The audience called for more and Katie Noonan returned to the stage with Brett Hirst for some vocal improvisation in I Will.

Can I say the concert ended on a high note? (Sorry). But I concede that I was more impressed than I expected. Let’s hear more of Noonan digging deeper into her vocal range.

Melbourne International Jazz Festival: Opening concert

YOU could say that Charlie Haden, after relishing the opening applause — “Don’t stop, don’t stop” — and spruiking his Liberation Music Orchestra CDs — “You can’t buy these any more… there are no record shops” — turned his back on the audience.

It was standing  room only at BMW Edge on Sunday for Haden (Artist in Residence for the MIJF) and his LMO of Australian stand-ins in what was effectively the opening concert for the festival. In suddenly wintry  Melbourne earlier  that afternoon, the Mell-O-Tones treated Fed Square patrons to some lively swing and dancers Swing Patrol showed us some cool moves on the paving stones. Actis Dato followed with their zany, fun-filled antics.

But Haden was the attraction. An annoying buzz, possibly caused by a nearby mic being left on, did not help initially, but this was rich music in which to indulge while contemplating the irony that Haden — and arranger/composer Carla Bley — intended the album Not In Our Name as a protest against George W. Bush and his values. There are some tongue-in-cheek references, of course, but this music is often serene and beautiful, albeit martial. Perhaps on this album the LMO was trying to show a better side of America in the dark days before Obama’s rise.

So what were the highlights? Well, it was fantastic (though not surprising, given the standard of local players) to hear Australian musicians with hardly any rehearsal time bringing to life this music that had its roots in the Spanish Civil War. Franco would have been in more trouble had his opponents faced Scott Tinkler or Shannon Barnett. Barnett’s trombone solos in This Is Not America and Amazing Grace were, resepctively, lively, energetic and so rich. Paul Williamson on trumpet was superb in Goin’ Home, bending, soaring and mewling before Phil Noy’s intricate solo on tenor sax.  Stephen Magnusson’s guitar shone in Amazing Grace, Andrew Young on french horn delighted during Sylvio Rodriguez’s Tail of a Tornado, and Tinkler was let out to play in a long version of We Shall Overcome, which also demonstrated Haden’s generosity to his fellow bass player in Sam Anning. Haden stopped playing to clap Anning, and earlier in the concert he expressed his enthusiasm for the younger player with “Yeah, man”.

Haden seems to be a gracious fellow and a real charmer. And his composition Silence was a beauty, breaking from the traditional solo after solo structure to open with Tinkler’s trumpet, add trombone, then french horn, then tuba, then alto sax, then the tenor saxes, then Anning’s bass before Charlie’s bass, Paul Grabowsky on piano (who never tried to push his presence) and Williamson’s trumpet. When did the drums enter? I forget. It built a mounting sense of anticipation, then ended with only the piano and Haden’s bass. It sustained interest and had great beauty.

The other thing of note was that Charlie Haden, in order to conduct his “Oz LMO”, faced his musicians and not the audience, so that effectively they had a private performance from the master. We could hear the result — and not everyone thought the BMW Edge acoustics did the sound justice — but the musicians on stage could see Haden. And towards the end of Silence, while Grabowsky and Haden played, the others in the LMO seemed to watch, and listen, enthralled.

A great start to MIJF for 2009.