By Kaye Blum
If you think jazz isn’t your thing, this year’s Stonnington Jazz festival could have you wondering why you didn’t come to the party sooner. It’s the first time the festival, now in its 11th year, has engaged a performer (and a woman) as Artistic Director, and Chelsea Wilson has delivered a distinctively funky edge to the programme.
Wilson is a Melbourne-based singer, songwriter and broadcaster. Anyone who’s heard her radio show Jazz Got Soul on PBS will know her taste in jazz genres is diverse, which shines through her festival selections.
As you’d expect from an award-winning jazz festival, there’s a Concert Series featuring some of Australia’s jazz luminaries. But there’s also a Club Series that’ll get your boogie well and truly on, plus some exclusive events and one-off collaborations you won’t see elsewhere.
It opens with the Australian Songbook, a premier event celebrating Australian songwriting with an awesome line-up – Wilma Reading, Gian Slater, Mama Alto, Josh Kyle, Clancye Milne, and Wilson herself in her only festival appearance. Backed by the James Mustafa String Orchestra, they’ll perform a song of their own plus an interpretation of a different Australian favourite.
Another one-off collaboration is The Revolution Will Not Be Televised – Pieces of Gil Scott-Heron, the influential poet, writer and musician known as the father of hip-hop. “It’s an event that I’m really excited about,” says Wilson. “It’s bringing together hip-hop, soul and jazz artists all in the one line-up to pay respect to Gil Scott Heron.”
That line-up includes Vince Jones, N’fa Jones, Ryan Ritchie (The Raah Project), Hue Blanes, Hailey Cramer and Walter Saluni interpreting selected tracks, backed by a band featuring members of The Putbacks, ATM15 and The Meltdown.
The Meltdown’s full band appears at Stonnington for the first time as part of the festival’s Club Series at Revolver Upstairs. For The Soul Session, they’re joined by Fulton Street, a relatively new band with British Northern Soul influences who are rapidly gaining an enthusiastic following in Melbourne’s healthy soul scene.
Revolver Upstairs is a new venue for the festival and while it isn’t known for jazz, that was part of its appeal. “I wanted to have a mix of shows where there are still concerts where you can listen to Chris McNulty or Bob Sedergreen and sit down in a beautiful theatre,” WIlson explains. “But if you just want to have a boogie and still chat to your mates without getting kicked out, you can.”
Other gigs at Revolver guaranteed to get you dancing include the Worldwide Jazz Party featuring the acclaimed high-energy Latin jazz grooves of Clave Mania and the Senagambian Jazz Band with their fusion of world jazz, Afro and funk.
“The Senagambian Jazz Band are one of the most exciting bands in Melbourne at the moment, I reckon,” Wilson enthuses, “Amadou [Suso, the band’s lead and vocalist] plays a Kora that’s 760 years old that’s been passed down from generation to generation; but he’s doing something completely different… they’re really fun.”
Also at Revolver Upstairs is Lance Ferguson Presents: Black Feeling. This exclusive event sees the Bamboos frontman performing a selection of tracks from his three album series Black Feeling live for the first time with his band. Expect jazz-funk, soul-jazz and Latin gems.
If high energy swing, rhythm and blues and jumpin’ jive is your thing, local favourites The Shuffle Club are on the festival bill with Yvette Johansson joining them on vocals for their Dance Party at the Armadale Uniting Church Hall.
There’ll be dancing in the streets when Windsor’s Green Street is closed off for the afternoon to host a New Orleans Street Party, with food trucks and live bands including Horns of Leroy, Henry Manetta and The Trip, The Sugarfoot Ramblers and more. It’s all ages and it’s free.
It was important for Wilson to not only present a diverse range of jazz genres at this years’ festival, but also to make it inclusive and accessible. “Going out can be really expensive,” she says. “So I wanted a variety of events to suit different budgets.”
Anyone can join the festival’s free music workshops, jazz jam, and jazz poetry slam; or learn more about Australian jazz at Backbeat: Stories of Australian Jazz. This exclusive exhibition is presented in collaboration with the Australian Jazz Museum and curated by Wilson, featuring video footage, gig posters, recordings and other paraphernalia.
But that’s not all for the jazzheads – the programme includes amazing talent like Renee Geyer, Wilma Reading, Monique diMattina, Fem Belling, Tamara Murphy, Nichaud Fitzgibbon, Nino Ferro, Kimba Griffith, Anton Delecca, Remco Keijzer and more.
There’s also two Jazz High Teas featuring Hetty Kate and Vanessa Fernandez, set in the grandeur of the Malvern Town Hall, with an indulgent high tea prepared by macaron legend Adriano Zumbo.
For something totally unique, cult film buffs and cult band buffs can check out Mad Jazz at The Astor – a special screening of the original 1979 Mad Max film featuring a live score created and performed by The Shaolin Afronauts. “That’s going to be wild,” says Wilson. “It’s never been done before. And George Miller gave us the tick of approval to do it, which is amazing. They were like ‘yeah, sounds cool, go for it’”.
It’s ticks all round to Wilson for programming a distinctive and diverse jazz festival where, finally, female artists are billed pretty much in equal numbers to males.
Stonnington Jazz 2016 runs from Thursday May 12 to Sunday May 22 across various venues in the City of Stonnington.
An edited version of this article was first published in Beat magazine Issue 1522, April 27, 2016