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Reviews/Music

New big band puts jazz on the main stage

17 December 2021

WA’s newest jazz orchestra make their debut at the Perth Concert Hall and Kristian Borring discovers what all the excitement is about.

“A Very Jazzy Christmas”, Western Australian Jazz Project ·
Perth Concert Hall, 16 December 2021 ·

The inaugural concert by the Western Australian Jazz Project (WAJP) hit the ground running last night at the Perth Concert Hall. Artistic director, Grant Windsor, proclaimed to the audience that this orchestra wants to follow the lineage of late big band leader, Duke Ellington, by bringing jazz into the concert hall. Judging from the 800-strong, supportive audience it seems there is a healthy appetite in WA to support this goal.

The evening opened in the hard swinging style of Count Basie’s big band, followed by an acknowledgement of country (given by MC Ali Bodycoat) which turned into a musical prologue composed by managing director, Adrian Kelly, where each band member was poetically introduced. At first, this seemed puzzling and a little lengthy, but considering the occasion (an orchestra is born), it was a noble gesture to shine light on each of these talented 18 musicians and their diverse backgrounds.

The Nutcracker Suite was next – Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker. This work, first recorded in 1960, is historic big band music of the highest calibre, fusing subtle orchestral techniques and swinging rhythms with deliberate moments for band members to shine. While it did take the band a couple of tunes into the Suite to really gel and start getting the hall buzzing, they were undoubtedly up for the task.

A lady in along white dress and a man in a grey suit sing onstage in front of a jazz band
Vocalists Reigan Derry and John James O’Hara charm the audience at the debut concert by the WA Jazz Project. Deprimo Photography

The reeds section, led by Matt Styles, delivered a tight and warm sound with delightfully sweet intonation, particularly enjoyable in the passages featuring clarinets. The brass were well balanced and blended beautifully in the softer sections. In the brief soloistic moments trumpeter Marty Pervan was a stand-out. Windsor’s conducting was performed the same way he plays the piano, with immense energy and clarity which must be as joyfully infectious for the band as it is for the audience to watch.

After the interval, vocalists Reigan Derry and John James O’Hara were introduced, setting a very different tone for the remainder of the evening touching on pop and musical theatre. Despite a cooking version of “My Favourite Things” and a short but outstanding trombone feature by Bruce Thompson, jazz purists may have felt a little disappointed. Nevertheless, Derry delivered impressive performances of “The Christmas Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, crystal clear and reminiscent of American singer Mariah Carey (whose influence was on full display in Carey’s own “All I Want for Christmas is You”). In this second half of the concert individuals of the band were less in focus but led by Windsor they delivered a perfect platform for the vocalists to shine.

Five things you need to know about WA’s new jazz supergroup.

Judging from last night WAJP wants to get a wider audience enthusiastic about jazz as an artform outside more niche clubs and festivals. It appears the slogan “jazz done differently” refers not to an experimental attitude towards jazz repertoire but rather towards how jazz in WA can become a more widely recognised artform, integrated and cultivated positively into audience awareness, and using Perth Concert Hall as a base. It will be exciting to see how this project unfolds and what sort of outreach director and education officer Melissa Skinner will initiate to connect with both our youth and regional WA.

WAJP is a confident, boisterous, and musically approachable jazz orchestra and they are certainly filling a gap. With their high skill level and musicality, and given the support they deserve, they could develop a distinct band sound that is world-class.

The next WAJP concert is “Jazz at the Symphony” on 18 February 2022.

Pictured top: The WA Jazz Project make their debut at the Perth Concert Hall. Deprimo Photography

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Author —
Kristian Borring

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