While many Melburnians book a holiday in warmer climes to escape the intense mid-winter chill in June, others book a week off work to hang around and catch some of the world’s best live jazz at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival (MIJF).
MIJF has attracted audiences from all over the country (and abroad) since 1998. Stretching across ten days, the program covers a range of jazz genres and features international and local artists. Venues range from major concert halls to intimate jazz clubs, outdoor stages to shopping arcades, and pop-up stages around the city and beyond.
The 2016 program had several categories: Modern Masters, Explorations In Jazz, Club Sessions, and Jazz Out West. There were also Special Events and Free Events such as the opening celebration concert, artist workshops, performance collaborations and lunchtime jazz gigs.
I’ve not lived in Melbourne for many recent winters, so this year I was determined to throw myself into MIJF and experience as much as I could. I crammed in ten performances, a film preview, and a couple of insightful discussion panels. There’s no festival pass, and individual ticket prices vary greatly depending on the calibre of the artist and the venue. While some events are free, the ticket costs for major acts can quickly add up – but it’s still a lot cheaper than flights and a hotel in New York.
I signed up for the MIJF’s email list to keep me in the loop for last minute events which didn’t make it into the printed program. The much-hyped Snarky Puppy gig at The Forum sold out so fast I missed out, so news of a second show via email ensured another quick dent in the credit card to secure a ticket. And of course, it was incredibly worthwhile.
They’d flown in from Singapore at 5.20am that morning, and according to bassist / composer Michael League, they had no idea what time it was. But there was no sign of jetlag – they had the packed house totally pumped. The line-up included two sax players, a drummer and percussionist, Mark Lettieri on electric guitar, Mike “Maz” Maher on flugelhorn and trumpet, keyboard player Bill Lawrence, and Justin Stanton alternated between keys and trumpet. I heard they later played at Bennetts Lane Jazz Club (where the festival’s late night jam sessions were held). Damn, missed it.
FOMO ensured I acted fast when MIJF’s email newsletter also announced a special preview screening of the Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, with the film score’s composer Robert Glasper in the house to discuss his involvement in the film.
The film itself was action-packed and pacey – maybe a little too much action and embellishment of fact was used to bump up the entertainment value. Although Don Cheadle was brilliant as Davis and he also directed the film – a challenging task for any actor-director, probably more so for a potential audience of Davis fans likely to nit-pick every detail. But hey, it was fun. And the music was a genuine highlight. The opportunity to hear Glasper’s insights to the process of reimagining Davis’ iconic style was fascinating. It inspired me to head to his MIJF gigs but I was too late – both had already sold out.
Saxophonist Marcus Strickland and trumpeter Keyon Harrold also featured on the soundtrack, which prompted me to buy a ticket to Harrold’s gig at Bennetts Lane. He and Strickland both had shows with their band Twi-Life, each as alternate headliners.
It sold out not long after I bought a ticket, so I felt pretty lucky as I queued in the chilly air to get in. That gig turned out to be one of my festival highlights. As MIJF’s Program Manager Melanie Pose mentioned in her intro that night, “what’s going down in New York is happening right here” in Melbourne. Bennetts certainly had the vibe. And Harrold’s trumpet sounded utterly sublime. I felt even luckier to grab a quick chat with Harrold and Twi-Life’s killer keys player Mitch Henry after the show.
A musician friend recommended seeing another trumpet player in the MIJF program – Tomasz Stańko. He’s been described by The New Yorker as “one of the world’s most original and inventive jazz trumpeters” and worked frequently with Roman Polanski’s film composer Krzysztof Komeda. The Coopers Malthouse was perhaps a slightly larger venue than necessary for his quartet, but the acoustics gave divine justice to a performer of his calibre and the house looked at least three quarters full. The appreciative audience was captivated by his sometimes dark, yet persistently mesmerizing and deeply emotive tones. His energy on stage belied his 74 years.
Another night and another headline act at the Malthouse was the award-winning vocalist Kristin Berardi, but an earlier gig I’d attended ran over time and I got there too late to see her set. So it was off to Bennetts Lane for the late night jam sessions where enigmatic host Hue Blanes convinced her to perform a couple of impromptu numbers. I was quietly elated – although I’d been privileged to see her perform in April at the Brisbane Jazz Club, any chance to hear her sing live is a major win. She has a voice which can simultaneously melt glass and mend hearts. It was no surprise when she picked up her third Bell Award this year.
Although another contender for this year’s Bell Award for Best Australian Jazz Vocal Album was Vince Jones. With all due respect to previous winners, it’s hard to believe this legend of the Australian jazz scene has not yet been recognised with such an award. As a songwriter, prolific recording artist and performer, his contribution to the Australian jazz canon is truly remarkable and he is an inspiration for so many Australian musicians.
If I sound completely biased, well, so be it. Disclosure: Vince was the very first artist I ever reviewed (in the days when In*Press was actually in print). As a young writer trying to get a break, I felt quite daunted at the prospect of trying to write about an artist of such calibre. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve seen him live in various cities since, and his album Trustworthy Little Sweethearts is still one of my most played pieces of vinyl.
Jones was the only Australian act to headline this year’s Modern Masters series with Van Morrison’s Masterpieces at the Melbourne Recital Centre, which sold out so fast the MIJF put on a second show. With the brilliant Matt McMahon as Musical Director, they assembled an absolute killer line-up including Stephen Magnusson on guitar, Ben Robertson on bass, Anthony Floyd on drums, Atilla Kuti and Naomi Dusston on strings, the ubiquitous and ever-impressive Eugene Ball on trumpet, Tim Wilson on sax and sublime flute, and the gorgeously sweet vocals of Gian Slater. It was a joy to not only hear Vince sing but also hear his stories and insights around Van Morrison’s incredible breadth of work.
My last MIJF shows were at the Art Centre’s magnificent Hamer Hall. The pop-up Riverside Jazz Club beside the hall provided a great little pre-concert drop-in with some quality up-and-coming artists. I dropped in to catch stunning young Sydney soul singer Wallace before heading to the concert hall to hear José James interpret the songs of Billie Holiday. I was back again the next night to see the legendary Wayne Shorter Quartet on the festival’s final night.
So much incredible music, so many great memories. It was a marathon ten days but it left me on an absolute high. I felt incredibly blessed to live in a city where so much quality local and international music is on our doorstep. I’m looking forward to throwing myself into next year’s festival with full force again.
© 2016 Kaye Blum