Festival ends with more fizzle than bang

15 March 2021

Though it started promisingly, Perth Festival’s tour through the history of jazz left Rosalind Appleby wanting more.

“The Jazz line”, Perth Festival ·
Government House Gardens, 14 March 2021 ·

What springs to mind when you think of jazz? Freedom? Spirituality? Creativity? Protest?

Since its emergence from New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century, the genre of jazz has been all these things and more.

Western Australia has contributed to that history in recent times by producing some of Australia’s greatest jazz musicians, and many of them have returned to Perth to sit out COVID.

So it seemed a great idea that Perth Festival would bring some of these musicians together to celebrate the history of jazz in “The Jazz Line”, curated by Ali Bodycoat and Mace Francis.

As the sun set over the trees of Government House garden, leaving a wind-less twilight for picnickers on the lawn, everything was set for success. A gorgeous a capella arrangement of “Just a closer walk with thee” was a fitting gospel introduction and then the fun began as Mace Francis led a New Orleans style jazz parade around the gardens. Ragtime and Dixieland numbers followed, with Adrian Galante starring on piano and clarinet. The pounding tom-tom drums (the charismatic Daniel Susnjar) and wail of horns in “Sing, Sing, Sing” had the crowd well and truly warmed up.

A line of musicians walk along the grass, playing their instruments while they are watched by picnickers
Mace Francis leads the parade through Government House Gardens. Photo by Jess Wyld

The next few songs wandered through jazz standards of the 50s and 60s, with an inter-changing line up of musicians ranging from luminaries like guitarist Ray Walker to self-conscious young horn players still cutting their jazz teeth. The smooth, crisp “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” from young vocalist Lucy Iffla was equal parts mournful and cute, while seasoned vocalists Libby Hammer and Victoria Newton stretched the familiar “Mack the Knife” until it exploded into a full-scale scatting battle, delivered with white-hot intensity.

Their sizzling performance was a great set up to launch into bebop, jazz fusion, free jazz and present day explorations of jazz, perhaps culminating in some original jazz compositions from WA artists. Instead the evening slowly fizzled from here. The jazz standards continued, hovering around the 1960s with over-played standards like “Watermelon Man”, “Cantaloupe Island” and “Take Five”.

There is a reason these pieces have become classics but the evening’s compere Ali Bodycoat didn’t reveal the stories behind the songs (or the gossip about the performers for that matter!). Instead she referred listeners to go “do some homework”. Twenty five songs later, we had learned little about jazz or the WA scene. And ironically there is so much our world could still learn from jazz about freedom, protest, community and spirituality.

Given the Festival’s theme of bilya (water) it seemed a missed opportunity not to commission a new work about the Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River) a stone’s throw from where we were sitting. Or to showcase Perth’s revival of Afro-Peruvian jazz (Daniel Susnjar’s group) or the current trends in big band composing (Mace Francis Orchestra) and jazz noise (Ben Greene), or Jamie Oehler’s unusual Double Drummer Band, or…

Without this “The Jazz Line” was an anti-climatic conclusion to the Festival, a sedate stroll through half a century of jazz history that didn’t come near to showcasing the rich creativity of Perth’s jazz talent.

Pictured top: Lucy Iffla fronts a diverse array of WA’s talented jazz musicians. Photo by Jess Wyld

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She was co-managing editor and founding board member of Seesaw Magazine 2018 – 2023, is author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine (UK). She loves park percussion instruments.

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