Melbourne International Jazz Festival, 2023

Leon Morris saw jazz on the street, on stage and on exercise bikes as Melbourne seeks to put itself on the international jazz map

The Melbourne 2023 performance of Fahrad Frei, part of a suite by Shannon Barnett written for the gym

This year’s Melbourne International Jazz Festival (MIJF) hosted a bold and ambitious program of more than 100 performances in the last 10 days of October. Staged across multiple and varied city venues, the festival confirmed its pre-eminent status in Australian jazz, and made significant headway towards its aspiration to be recognised among leading international jazz festivals.

Melbourne is a city that likes to think of itself as the sporting, cultural and musical capital of Australia. Melbourne audiences are consequently open to innovation and new experiences, and there is a thirst to engage with the world’s best artists and performers, who rarely make the long flight to visit these shores.

MIJF’s artistic director, Michael Tortoni, is both a successful venue promoter and occasional bass player. He intuitively understands that Melbourne audiences embrace a party, expect world-class musicianship and respond to cutting edge ensembles and innovative presentations.

The element that is missing from the local scene is the artistic ambition that arises from cross-pollination with emerging and established artists of international standing

Major concert halls, smaller club gigs and site-specific venues sold out. Importantly, the audience profiles reversed a trend towards ever-older audiences at Australian jazz festivals – probably one of the key reasons behind the demise this year of the Wangaratta Jazz Festival, a 30-year fixture on the Australian music calendar.

The yardstick by which MIJF must ultimately be measured, is the “international” in its title. Australia has quietly been building a vibrant and resurgent local jazz scene, largely driven by an emerging groundswell of younger musicians, mentored and supported by mid and late career artists, many of whom teach jazz at universities.

The element that is missing from the local scene is the artistic ambition that arises from cross-pollination with emerging and established artists of international standing – the kind of creative environment that tends to be taken for granted in major jazz centres like New York and Los Angeles.

The festival was kicked off by a New Orleans street parade led by the Hot 8 Brass Band, with perennial funk and disco favourites, Chaka Khan and Nile Rodgers & Chic sharing the stage at the city’s major outdoor venue, the Myer Music Bowl.

The festival closed with the sublime vocals of Cecile McLorin Salvant in the city’s premier concert venue, the recently refurbished Hamer Hall. McLorin Salvant demonstrated a maturity in vocals and stagecraft beyond her years. It’s as if she was born in the late 20th century so she could re-present earlier 20th century show tunes – by the likes of Sondheim, Gershwin, Bernstein and Bacharach – to a 21st century audience. 

Her interplay with her trio is mesmerising, and while the songs can sometimes feel dated, they are popular for a reason. And she brings a crispness and clarity to her arrangements that lends a knowing modernity. In Bacharach’s Wives And Lovers, for example, she exaggerates the enunciation of “city” and “pretty” as if she is sharing a knowing wink with the audience. We understand that the sentiment of “wives needing to act as lovers” is at best old fashioned, but heck, it’s a great tune. To avoid any confusion, she segues to one of her own composition, Obligations, a complex and intricate ballad exploring the resentments in a relationship that follow from expectations. “Is that love?” she asks.

For the 10 days between the opening and closing acts, different strands of programming include a wide mix of local artists, visiting artists, industry discussions, music workshops and a programme of concerts targeted at the multi-cultural community in west Melbourne.

The selection of visiting modern jazz artists leans heavily on genre-defying younger musicians at the top of their game. The curation is smart. Individual artists cross-fertilise and perform in different ensembles, just as they would on their home turf.

Marquis Hill, a breakthrough trumpet player originally hailing from Chicago, leads a quartet with the inimitable Makaya McCraven on drums. Hill doesn’t just traverse genres, he tramples all over them. At one point he uses effect pedals to create a rich cathedral-like organ sound. On another night, McCraven leads his quartet, this time with Marquis Hill in the band. Junius Paul plays bass with both – he somehow manages to play rhythm and lead at the same time – and Brett Williams plays piano with Hill, and then joins Australian keyboard player and composer, Barney McAll, in a new ensemble, Supernatural Dirt – this as part of a concert showcasing Australia’s leading African, Latin, soul and groove dance beats.

Kendrick Scott hosts his quintet in the intimate performance space of a converted church, then anchors the SFJAZZ Collective in the Melbourne Recital Centre, a purpose-built venue with one of the best sounds of any concert venue, anywhere. It’s a suitable homage to the best of contemporary American jazz, showcasing to an attentive audience (liberally scattered with leading Australian jazz musicians) the extraordinary technical skill of its current members: Chris Potter and David Sanchez on tenor saxophone, Mike Rodriguez on trumpet, Edward Simon on piano, Matt Brewer on bass and Warren Wolf on vibes.

This is the 20th anniversary of the collective. It has a unique working rhythm. For four to six weeks in the northern autumn the individual performers, all of whom have stellar reputations as leaders or sidemen in their own right, come together to rehearse new material, mostly composed by the current musical director, Chris Potter.

A collaboration between leading Australian didgeridoo player William Barton and South African jazz pianist Ndudozo Makhathini was sold out long ahead of time

While the Melbourne festival already includes a programme of successful commissions and collaborations, the SFJAZZ model may suggest the kind of longer-term opportunity to creatively curate a mix of Australian and international artists, potentially in partnership with other institutions and jazz festivals, for example in Europe, where MIJF is increasingly keen to partner.

Innovation in programming was a standout highlight for this year’s festival. A collaboration between leading Australian didgeridoo player William Barton and South African jazz pianist Ndudozo Makhathini was sold out long ahead of time. It was performed in an old powerhouse converted into an arts venue in the west of Melbourne, and all reports suggest it was a powerful and moving performance.

Manchester band GoGo Penguin performed at one of the city’s mid-size venues on the same night. It was their first visit to Australia, and they overpowered and outshone the support act, Melbourne’s Tamil Rogeon Electric Band. Tamil is a world-class violinist and composer, but the new material for this performance was not nearly as inspiring or infectiously danceable as some of his other combinations.

GoGo Penguin were performing on the back of a new album, a new drummer and recent family tragedies. There is something both symbiotic and independent about the way this trio plays. They build a kind of minimalist crescendo, with waves of sound that never quite break. Within that wall of sound, piano, bass and drums provide separate statements of clarity and intent. This probably works best when it relies on acoustic instruments, rather than the occasional foray into electronica. A word about the lighting plan: regularly aiming spotlights into the eyes of the crowd is distracting and annoying. While backlighting can be attractive and atmospheric, sometimes an audience also wants to see what and how the band is playing.

I caught Makhathini with his jazz trio the following night in the Jazzlab, a lively club venue owned by MIJF’s artistic director Tortini, in the north of Melbourne. Makhathini is more McCoy Tyner than Abdullah Ibrahim or Bheki Mseleku. He is clean and precise in his playing, and his interplay with a powerful but understated rhythm section demonstrates how rolling African rhythms and Zulu call-and-response inform modern jazz styles and syncopations. He is also something of a jazz prophet, extolling the sacred mission of sound and improvisation to rebalance a world that is out of touch. “Jazz”, he explains, “is more about listening than playing. How would it sound if playing was entirely the result of listening?”

A second innovation, unlike anything I have ever experienced at a jazz festival, was the site-specific piece Dead Weight. Composed in Cologne in 2018 by the award-winning, Germany-based Australian trombonist Shannon Barnett, Dead Weight comprises four separate pieces intentionally written for a gymnasium or fitness centre.

Dead Weight was fresh and exciting – the kind of ‘out there’ event you would normally expect to see at an arts festival, but somehow right at home in the world of jazz. It captivated the audience and left me smiling for days

The historic Melbourne City Baths, first opened in 1860, hosted two performances. The sold-out audience, divided into three, rotated through three short performances in random order: End Of The Bargain (a minimalist score for two basses, cello and rowing machine), Fahrad Frei (for five saxophones on exercise bikes) and Skin Deep, a three-part harmony performed in the women’s change rooms. The three audience groups then join together for Deep Work – essentially a groove band backing a fitness instructor.

The four performances were intriguing, thought provoking and always entertaining. There is a deadpan Australian sense of humour running through at least three of the pieces, while the vocal piece highlighted gender equity issues with subtle theatrics and insightful lyrics. In all, this was fresh and exciting – the kind of “out there” event you would normally expect to see at an arts festival, but somehow right at home in the world of jazz. It captivated the audience and left me smiling for days.

Another innovation of the festival is the free Jazz Westside program, intended to bring the festival to the multi-cultural community in the west of Melbourne. While the intent is laudable, the execution felt underdone. By presenting mostly local artists, it felt a bit like it inadvertently marginalised an already marginalised community. This could easily be rectified by programming side gigs or workshops by some of the better known and more adventurous visiting artists in future years.

The exception this year was Zimbawe’s Sylent Nqo. He is not particularly well known, but should be. He is a stylish, versatile and accomplished guitarist and singer. Unseasonal wintry weather had finally broken by the final day of the festival, and warm sunshine flooded the community square in Footscray. Nqo, solo, held the audience spellbound before being joined by local band the Experience to amp up the party atmosphere – it felt like something very special had graced the city’s west.

Overall, the festival was bold, ambitious and innovative. It had a heady mix of established and emerging artists, attracting both traditional and new audiences. If the festival continues to innovate and challenge, and fulfils its ambition to partner with major festivals and institutions such as the EFG London Jazz Festival, then the eyes and ears of the jazz world may well be turning down under in future years.

Melbourne International Jazz Festival 2023, 20 Oct 2023 – 29 Oct 2023