MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL JAZZ FESTIVAL
3-5. December, various venues
Music can trigger deep memories. And as one of the panel discussions during this year’s Melbourne International Jazz Festival explored, it plays an integral role in embedding those memories in the first place. The 2021 festival premiered several projects that grew out of artists’ formative childhood and youth experiences, from Emma Donovan’s uplifting gospel-influenced concert to Ellie Lamb’s wonderful suite that explored anxiety and confusion around notions of identity and gender.
These two shows provided emotional highlights in this year’s program, in no small part given the artists’ strong personal connection to the material they presented. Lamb (trombonist, composer and director of the festival’s Take Note program featuring female and non-binary artists) dived into difficult emotional terrain to create a potent six-piece suite, Between worlds. Under Lamb’s leadership, an excellent octet conjured up longing dreams, flirted wildly, tipped to the brink of chaos, and finally emerged with a festive touch of self-acceptance.
Donovan’s collaboration with Paul Grabowsky focused on the hymns, gospel, and country tunes she grew up hearing and singing in her community. Grabowsky’s imaginative arrangements for his seven-man band served to magnify the beauty and power of Donovan’s remarkable voice, which simultaneously invoked earth and air as she poured her spirit into each sentence. The songs were interwoven with stories that underscored how much this music has shaped the singer, and it was clearly a joyous and deeply moving occasion for everyone on stage.
Another First Nations artist, Amos Roach, also utilized family and cultural traditions for his festival commission. Inspired by the six seasons of Gariwerd country (in Grampians), the work featured the pulsating, hypnotic drone of Roach’s yidaki (didgeridoo) accompanied by a trio of native dancers and three musicians from the Australian Art Orchestra. While the jazz elements sometimes felt more like a textural consequence than a fully integrated aspect of the songs and dances, this was still a fascinating work with a rich potential for further development.
The festival program was also filled with album launches, many of which had been postponed several times thanks to COVID. Two exceptional Melbourne bassists (Sam Anning and Tamara Murphy) introduced music from their latest releases – Anning with his septet and Murphy with his Spirograph Studies quartet.
Annings Oaatchapai explores darker and more complex worlds than his previous album, and his star band exhibited a remarkable unity of purpose as they darted back and forth between light and shadow. Murphy’s Spirograph studies produced music that seemed to float in the air, and each player formed independent lines that intertwined to create a sense of perfect balance.