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Reviews/Music

WAAPA serves up a slice of NYC jazz

9 May 2022

In a retrospective performance, jazz virtuoso Barney McAll draws on the traditions of his genre while pointing the way to the future, writes Garry Lee

Jazz in the Theatre: Barney McAll ·
Geoff Gibbs Theatre, WAAPA, Friday 6 May ·

The great traditions and bright future of jazz were on display in the latest offering in the WA Academy of Performing Arts’ (WAAPA) Jazz in the Theatre series as acclaimed pianist Barney McAll joined forces with a new generation of jazz students.

McAll has been one of Australia’s most significant jazz musicians since winning the inaugural National Jazz Award at the 1990 Wangaratta Jazz Festival. A move to New York City later in the 1990s to play in the Gary Bartz Quartet provided a two-decade opportunity to assimilate all that the New York jazz scene offers – from playing gospel organ in church to exposure to Afro Cuban styles of artists, such as pianist Chucho Valdés. All this plus the bop/post-bop crucible in New York have informed McAll as a pianist and composer. 

McAll treated this concert as a retrospective – a chance to showcase his repertoire of compositions over a three-decade period. With this opportunity he presented a world-class concert of juxtaposition of jazz genres and textures – presenting himself initially in a solo piano setting and then in a jazz trio context and finally with big band, choir and harp plus other contrasting line-ups. 

This was 21st century jazz at its best but emanating from a strong sense of the jazz tradition. The trio feature was inspired by Chick Corea’s 1966 recording of Kurt Weill’s This is New. Contrast this with the concert’s final tune Precious Energy, the title track of McAll’s latest album, that brought together almost 30 musicians. 

The jazz tradition was on show with a sublime arrangement and rendition of the spiritual Deep River that featured an exquisite contribution from the WAAPA choir led by Victoria Newton. 

Some of the WAAPA jazz students supporting Barney McAll in ‘big band’ format. Photo: Stephen Heath

Two originals – Thirty One and Thirty Two – again illustrated McAll’s influences. Written on his corresponding birthdays, both show the influence of Art Blakey’s 1963 live album Ugetsu.

McAll draws much from the Australian land and seascape. Coast Road, inspired by Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, was performed by the five horn ensemble Mingus. Nectar Spur and Julius Future were inspired by the two great Brazilian musicians Egberto Gismonte and Nana Vasconcelos but also written for members of McAll’s family. He repeatedly referenced his wife and children as well as his wider family of young Australian jazz musicians throughout the concert with excellent and sometimes witty commentary. 

He appeared humbled and impressed by the commitment of the students to present his music with verve and accuracy despite problems with COVID-19 that forced some performers to withdraw.

McAll quoted his one-time leader and mentor US alto saxophonist Gary Bartz: “If you listen deeply enough, you can hear the future and it says ‘right this way’.” 

The concert showcased many fine young WAAPA students, including promising solos by alto saxophonists Holly Forster and Aaron Caldwell, while the two tenor saxophonists Oliver Taylor and Camryn Thomason successfully re-enacted the “duelling” saxes of Paul Gonsalves and Harold Ashby from Duke Ellington Orchestra. 

The inclusion of Kira Gunn’s harp provided a texture rarely heard in jazz. Vincent Choy demonstrated technical skill and an excellent understanding of contemporary improvisational jazz vocabulary, and the double bass of Cass Evans-Ocharern demonstrated a maturity and self-assuredness that belied his age.

McAll’s piano virtuosity shone throughout. He brought the energy and virtuosity of influences such as Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea with the sensibility and knowledge of the jazz/blues tradition of Barry Harris and Cedar Walton. 

With the expertise and leadership of artists like McAll and the commitment and talent of emerging young jazz musicians such as those currently studying at WAAPA, the future of jazz is assured. 

There is another chance to hear WAAPA’s young jazz musicians in a free concert with selected high school students on 11 May 2022.

Pictured top: Barney McAll at the piano with WAAPA students, including Kira Gunn on harp. Photo by Stephen Heath.

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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.

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