A Crash Course in Australian Jazz

A Crash Course in Australian Jazz

One Monday in April 2019, at the conservatory hall in Melbourne, Australia, trumpeter James Morrison entered into a deep musical communion with William Barton, an Australian Aboriginal didgeridoo master still in his thirties. Barton’s room-filling bass tones evoked a surreal combination of the ancient and the industrial, somehow static and hypnotic, yet overstuffed with variations. Morrison, whose expressive command of blues language can be staggering, conjured up plenty of world-jazz associations, from the Chicago avant-garde to electric Miles to Don Cherry.

It was a fantastic musical exercise, sure, but like the whole of International Jazz Day, it held a metaphor at its core. “You can bring together things as disparate as these two cultures, musical styles, instruments, you name it,” Morrison said after the music had ended, “simply if you come into the space with the idea: ‘I have to listen to what language he’s speaking, and I have to think about my language and go, ‘How are we gonna do this so we make something beautiful together?’”

International Jazz Day, co-organized by the United Nations’ UNESCO agency and the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz (formerly the Thelonious Monk Institute), has been held annually and globally on April 30 since 2012. A different city acts as basecamp for each edition, offering concerts, panel sessions and educational workshops, many led by the young players in the prestigious Hancock Institute Fellows ensemble, and facilitating an All-Star Global Concert for broadcast. The 2019 show, artistically co-directed by Hancock and Morrison and featuring Ledisi, Lizz Wright, Kurt Elling and many others, will be webcast from Melbourne for free on jazzday.com, unesco.org, Facebook and YouTube.

The host locations have been far-reaching — Istanbul, Havana, Saint Petersburg and the White House, to name a few — but the message remains the same: jazz is an art form that fosters peace and understanding through its emphasis on improvised cooperation.

And while more than 190 countries now participate in IJD, the event nonetheless marks an occasion to dig into a jazz tradition outside of New York and other usual suspects. Australia has acted more as a host continent than the previous city arrangement, and TIDAL recently spent time in Sydney and Melbourne, taking in master classes given by Hancock and Morrison, checking out the local club scene, and talking to Aussie musicians and touring record shops.

In the process, we’ve fallen in love with the work of many Australian-born or -based musicians. Enjoy these artists, whose stylistic purview is mightily diverse, and understand that there are so many others awaiting your discovery.

Australian trumpeter James Morrison (closest to camera), Herbie Hancock (on keyboard) and the Hancock Institute Fellows perform during a master class for student musicians at the Sydney Opera House on April 26. Credit: Steve Mundinger/Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz

James Morrison, “Candy”

Morrison, the trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist at the helm of this year’s IJD festivities alongside Herbie Hancock, is Australia’s best-known jazz musician, and for good reason. He’s an affable, naturally charming presence onstage, and a torch carrier for time-honored jazz tenets like swing and the blues and romantic lyricism.

In American jazz, his closest analogue might be Wynton Marsalis; the two trumpeters share a similar reverence for jazz history and education — Morrison runs a namesake jazz academy —and have infiltrated the larger popular culture. (Example: Morrison’s credits include a tenure hosting the Australian edition of Top Gear.)

This easy-swinging cut kicks off Morrison’s recent album Midnight Till Dawn, which was recorded at Abbey Road and features the trumpeter’s sons, William (guitar) and Harry (bass), as well as drummer Patrick Danao.

Mat Jodrell, “Captive”

If your jazz knowledge base is New York-centric, then the marvelous Australian trumpeter Mat Jodrell might ring a bell sooner than some of his fellow countrymen. Before moving back to Australia to teach at the James Morrison Academy of Music, he spent eight years on the scene in New York, where he taught at Juilliard and played and recorded in a range of bands, including some of the most important large ensembles in recent memory, among them Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project and Miguel Zenón’s “Identities” Big Band.

“Captive,” off Insurgent, his new album released on International Jazz Day, is flexible, responsive post-bop that would sound right at home in the West Village or Brooklyn, featuring four Australia-based musicians — Jodrell, guitarist James Muller, bassist Sam Anning and drummer Ben Vanderwal — plus the U.K.-born, New York-based saxophonist Will Vinson.

The Necks, “Body”

Recommending a track by this Sydney-rooted trio — Chris Abrahams on piano and keyboards; Tony Buck on drums, percussion and guitar; and Lloyd Swanton on bass — often means declaring a favorite album. The Necks’ stock-in-trade is long-form, deceptively detailed art music that requires patient listening and pulls from all corners of avant-garde tradition: free jazz, minimalism, krautrock, postrock, classically informed “new music” and more.

Over the past three decades, they’ve earned enviable visibility for an experimental act, and their fans and advocates in the press often speak of the Necks’ cathartic music with cultish zeal. A case in point is the title of a 2017 New York Times Magazine feature on the band, “My Obsession With the Necks, the Greatest Trio on Earth.”

The Vampires, “Don Pacifico”

If the thriving London scene has been satisfying your jones for improvised music with a taste for global rhythms, then the Vampires are an auspicious next step. The quartet — Jeremy Rose on saxophones, bass clarinet and piano, Nick Garbett on trumpet, Alex Boneham on bass and Alex Masso on drums and percussion — formed in Sydney a decade and a half ago and plays a spacious, ethereal, pan-cultural jazz that rarely seems to rise above a simmer.

“Don Pacifico,” off Pacifica, the recent follow-up to their acclaimed album featuring guitarist Lionel Loueke, highlights a deep understanding of dub, but elsewhere the record evokes Abdullah Ibrahim’s genteel South African jazz and the interplay of the Ornette Coleman Quartet, along with much else. And fun fact: Sydney’s Boneham, now based in L.A., is an alum of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.

Sandy Evans, “Arms of Imagination”

For reasons of concision, this 2018 track is credited here solely to the marvelous saxophonist, composer, arranger and educator Sandy Evans. Really, this track off Bridge of Dreams, a compelling meeting of South Asian sounds and modern large-ensemble vernacular, is a collaboration including the Sirens Big Band and its bassist-leader Jessica Dunn, the singer Shubha Mudgal, the tabla masters Aneesh Pradhan and Bobby Singh and the harmonium player Sudhir Nayak.

Fusions of Indian music and jazz aren’t uncommon, but in recent decades they’ve often devolved into purely intellectual exercises. Bridge of Dreams is very obviously smart and ambitious, but it’s also stunningly beautiful.

Jonathan Zwartz, “Someday”

Warmth and generosity define this track off Animarum, the winner of the Grammy-like Aria Award for Best Jazz Album of 2018. The bassist Jonathan Zwartz, a New Zealander based in Australia, employs an Aussie dream team while writing and arranging small-group jazz with symphonic magnitude — listen for how the painterly horn harmonies bolster Stephen Magnusson’s guitar solo as it crests. And what a solo it is, summoning up Bill Frisell in its thoughtful melodic gifts.

But the not-so-secret weapon is pianist Barney McAll, a revered bandleader whose CV includes time with Gary Bartz and Kurt Rosenwinkel. His playing here, like Keith Jarrett in his gospel guise, offers pure spiritual uplift.

Andrea Keller, “Fern Tree”

Raised in Sydney and based in Melbourne, the pianist and composer Andrea Keller is that rare conceptualist whose music never loses its ability to entice. “Fern Tree,” off her 2018 live release featuring her working group Five Below — guitarist Stephen Magnusson, acoustic bassist Sam Anning, electric bassist Mick Meagher and drummer James McLean — is a kind of avant-jazz suite spread over nearly 10 minutes.

Keller opens on icy ECM terrain before the rhythm section impersonates electronic music and the pianist burns via hard-angled, doubled-up improvised lines. Before long, the band has nudged into impassioned free-jazz territory, but soon enough a loud, triumphant melody offers resolution, which trails off into a lengthy noise section. And that’s only the first half.

HEKKA, “Where to Fall Apart”

Comprising pianist Novak Manojlovic, electric bassist Jacques Emery and drummer Tully Ryan, the Sydney-based HEKKA prefers high-drama chording, heartrending melody and rhythm-making that simply cannot sit still. On the continuum between the genuinely innovative piano-trio language of the Bad Plus and the electronica-styled acoustic music of GoGo Penguin, “Where to Fall Apart,” a new single, sits at about the midpoint. But if the aesthetic is a touch overly familiar, the musicianship — excellent on record and extraordinary in a live setting — takes up the slack.

The Mike Nock Underground, “The Squire”

The name Mike Nock should certainly pique the interest of any self-respecting jazz cratedigger. The New Zealand-born pianist, who worked in America and has been based in Sydney since the mid ’80s, has a whole bunch of collectible-hip LPs to his credit: Ondas, his sole leader album for ECM, with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jon Christensen; John Handy’s Projections; Yusef Lateef’s Impulse! albums Live at Pep’s and 1984; LPs featuring the likes of John Abercrombie, Michael Brecker, Tom Harrell, Dave Liebman, Bennie Maupin, Cecil McBee, Charlie Mariano and others. And while he’s still improvising with remarkable insight, this cut off the 1971 MPS release Between or Beyond features Nock as an unsung jazz-rock trailblazer, a role he upheld solo and in the band the Fourth Way.

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