April 8th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Euthanasia: shutting up by shouting down

EUTHANASIA British actress tells it like it is

CANBERRA OBSERVED Move on 18C a return to a classic Liberal position

EDITORIAL Kowtowing to China is a serious mistake

ENERGY Hazelwood is vital to Australia's power supply

FOREIGN AFFAIRS UK sets out on the bumpy road to Brexit

QUEENSLAND Women have a victory over the abortion industry

BEHIND THE NEWS Ataturk and modern Turkey out of the shadow

WEST AUSTRALIAN ELECTION Unions and Emily's Listers reap WA Labor's harvest

LITERATURE The Napoleon of Notting Hill: Chesterton for today

HUMOUR Excerpts from the revised and updated edition of Forget's Dictionary of Inaccurate Facts, Furphys and Falsehoods

MUSIC Program notes: Jazz's two-tiered appeal

CINEMA The Boss Baby: Tots that mean business

BOOK REVIEW End to history nowhere in sight

BOOK REVIEW That sinking feeling



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Program notes: Jazz's two-tiered appeal

by David James

News Weekly, April 8, 2017

There are many music festivals on the Australian calendar; it is one of the best ways to get access to international performers and get a sense of where the art form is heading. But how does one choose which performers to hear?

The Melbourne International Jazz Festival (MIJF), probably Australia’s premier jazz festival, has just released its program. It is intriguing to go through the offerings and speculate about which gigs are likely to yield the most.

Carla Bley

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that there are two types of jazz: Entertainment and Adventure into the Unknown. Both are perfectly legitimate. It is often assumed that the entertainment strand of jazz is somehow poorer or a sellout, but to think that is to ignore the history of jazz, which developed in entertainment venues. It is also to ignore the wishes of punters, who often are looking for exactly that.

Glancing at the MIJF program, there are a number of gigs that fall into the entertainment category. Dianne Reeves is a technically accomplished singer with a wide range and advanced improvisation (scatting) skills. She is a singer, so her performances will be for many more accessible than instrumental jazz. And there is no doubting her musicality.

Also in the entertainment category are performances of pieces by Brazilian great Antonio Carlos Jobim (featuring Vince Jones) and songs popularised by Ella Fitzgerald (featuring James Morrison and Patti Austin).

The more recent iterations of jazz have tended to emphasise harmony and rhythm over melody; to hear this music is to be reminded that this was not always the case. Jobim was a peerless writer of melodies and the standards Ella immortalised were similarly memorable. Somewhere between the two categories is pianist Kenny Barron, whose playing is very much based around continued interpretations of 1950s standards.

In the Adventure into the Unknown category, there are two standout performers: pianist Carla Bley and guitarist Bill Frisell. Both are particular favourites of this writer.

Carla Bley is one of the few modern jazz composers who have been able to use advanced harmony yet still produce powerful melodies. As jazz has moved into areas like modal harmony, non-diatonic harmony, or even atonality, it has often been at the expense of melody.

Bley’s solution – evident in pieces like Lawns and Olhos de Gato – is to use highly repetitive melodic sequences that unfold slowly and which have a shifting harmonic underpinnings so that the repetition is hidden and the ear is guided to the harmony through a very structured door. As an improviser Bley also takes a long time to give away her melancholic secrets, so that when they arrive they sound both surprising and inevitable. That, too, is a rare art.

Bill Frisell is arguably the most eccentrically original guitarist in jazz – the instrument’s equivalent of Thelonious Monk. What he has shown is that electric guitar has far more scope to sound odd than perhaps any other contemporary instrument. His use of pedals, harmonics and various other sonic techniques make him instantly recognisable.

Bill Frisell

Like Bley, he tends to expose his secrets slowly. There is little bravura and a heavy emphasis on space. He also often chooses songs for their banality – such as Surfer Girl or Goin’ out of My Head – to demonstrate that musicality can be derived from anywhere.

Underlying it all is a mixture of repose, sometimes elegant, and humour. His bands’ development of texture is usually distinct and tantalising. This is very different from several strands of contemporary jazz where the audience is assailed with the musicians’ technique and intensity.

There are many quality Australian performers. The Necks, who have a distinctive style based on non-repetition, and Andrea Keller, whose latest effort beautifully combines poetry and lyrical composition.

In the more adventurous category there are two bands based heavily around drumming, the Americans Jim Black Quartet and Ari Hoenig. In both cases what is occurring is something of a deconstruction of the band format; instead of the drumming supporting, the other musicians support the drummer.

The choice of preference will depend on what the listener looks for in the music. But what does emerge from what is on offer is that what is entertaining and what is adventurous tend to be quite distinct. In previous eras of jazz, that was not the case.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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