Jazz with a social conscience

28 June 2021

Artemis Orchestra launch their debut album The Elephant in the Room and Garry Lee enjoys the arrival of a jazz ensemble that values equity, commitment and passion.

The Elephant in the Room, Artemis Orchestra and Perth Jazz Society ·
The Rechabite, 26 June 2021 ·

The Elephant in the Room is the title of the debut album by Perth’s Artemis Orchestra. The reference is to the gender imbalance that currently exists in jazz and is also the title of a piece composed and arranged by the Orchestra’s bassist, Kate Pass, one of several young gifted Perth women who have contributed original music to this excellent album. Yes there are highly talented jazz artists in Perth and they not necessarily all males.

Artemis Orchestra is the brainchild of jazz saxophonist/composer/educator, Gemma Farrell who formed the big band in 2017. In Greek mythology Artemis, daughter of Zeus, was the goddess of wild animals, the hunt and vegetation. This may provide a clue to the strength of the music on the CD, which was launched in concert on Saturday evening.

A row of female musicians playing saxophones
The all-female front row of horn players in Artemis Orchestra: a template of what is possible. Photo: Josie Nolan

Great jazz, according to the doyen of jazz educators, American Jerry Coker, needs to display craftsmanship – technique, understanding of music fundamentals; awareness – knowledge and respect for the tradition, and creativity and spirit – the emotional drive of the composer and instrumentalists.

The debut album of the Artemis Orchestra displays all of the above but what is most apparent and significant is the emotional drive inspiring these women to rehearse and perfect complex music that underlines a social conscience and responsibility.

Farrell’s initial impetus in creating the Orchestra was to promote people of marginalized gender in the Australian scene. Certainly there have been significant female jazz composers and instrumentalists internationally – Carla Bley, Toshiko Akioshi, Joanne Brackeen and Maria Schneider – and in Australia Sydney’s Sandy Evans, Melbourne’s Andrea Keller and Sonja Horbelt and of course Perth’s Linda May Han Oh are jazz artists who have gained universal respect. But here is an entire orchestra looking to create a template of what is possible.

The Elephant in the Room presents 10 originals by seven different composers: Candice Susnjar, Kate Pass, Alana Macpherson, Maddie Ivy, Amelia Jutilane and Alice Humphries. This was the repertoire of the concert that extended over two sets, preceded by a set from the sextet SKACE, who created an ideal mood.

Many of the compositions reflect on current issues and concerns that the composers are obviously passionate about. Farrell’s “Tony Umbridge” synthesizes former prime minister, Tony Abbott with Harry Potter character, Dolores Umbridge, an evil woman who represents the very worst of political power. Jutilane’s “Charcoal Hills” was composed as a response to the horrendous bushfires in so much of Australia over the summer of 2019/20. Macpherson’s “Silenced” commenced with a reading of the poem “Australia’s Silenced History” by Kija/Bardi poet Nola Gregory, who had made the trip from Geraldton to be part of the launch.

Read more with “Women in jazz – the elephant in the room”.

The style of the music obviously varied according to the composer but there was certainly a contemporary approach throughout. The episodic approach to composition so prevalent with New York-based Maria Schneider was apparent and Macpherson reflected the style of the late Bob Brookmeyer who in turn sought inspiration from contemporary classical composers like Stravinsky and Debussy. The funk “16” feel also permeated much of the music and showcased drummer, Julius Rogers. Solos by Holly Forster, Charlie Teakle, Claire Keet, Laura Igglesden and Julia Wallace were all well executed. Greater maturity will enhance their improvised jazz soloing even further.

Artemis Orchestra is an ensemble the Perth arts community should be incredibly proud of. They deserve the support of everyone who values equity, commitment and passion. Personally I look forward to the continued evolution of Artemis Orchestra.

“The Elephant in the Room” is available from the Artemis Orchestra.

Pictured top: Gemma Farrell conducts the Artemis Orchestra at the launch of ‘Elephant in the Room’. Photo: Josie Nolan

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Author —
Garry Lee

Garry Lee has played jazz vibraphone and guitar for over 50 years. He was a founding jazz teacher at WAAPA has also been a jazz writer, jazz composer/leader, Churchill Fellow and artistic director. Born in Essex soon after WW2, his favourite playground equipment was dismantled tanks and cannons.

Past Articles

  • Jazz fusion a fabulous festejo

    A melting pot of musical traditions are celebrated in a live recording project at the WA Academy of Performing Arts, says Garry Lee.

  • Redefining jazz

    Audible Edge Festival continues, with a performance which Garry Lee says challenged the preconceptions of what jazz is and – more importantly – created a platform as to what jazz might be.

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