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From sublime to incendiary

Review: Perth International Jazz Festival, Kristin Berardi/Sam Anning; Tal Cohen Quartet; Veronica Swift ⋅
State Theatre Centre, November 10 ⋅
Review by Garry Lee ⋅

The Perth International Jazz Festival reached its climax on Sunday with a series of contrasting concerts of world class standard. There was also a healthy dose of local musicians involved; of the seven musicians performing in the three concerts I attended, five were graduates from the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

On Sunday afternoon over fifty jazz aficionados were treated to the sublime sounds of vocalist Kristin Berardi and bassist Sam Anning in the Heath Ledger Theatre. The unusual duo of voice and bass does have a precedent in jazz with the pairing of United States artists Sheila Jordan and Harvie S in the 1970s. However the Berardi/Anning duo reflected more contemporary influences – think perhaps Joni Mitchell and Wendy Waldman. They also revealed broader influences including Celtic folk music such as on Anning’s composition Fields Are Sown where his arco (bowed) bass masterfully provided a sonic mood that clearly extended beyond the usual jazz idiom. US jazz pianist/composer Brad Mehldau’s Lament for Linus provided a piece that certainly was from the jazz repertoire. Mehldau was inspired by Homer’s Iliad for this composition from his 1997 Art of the Trio album and Berardi has added lyrics including a superb vocalese rendition of the original piano solo.

a bassist and vocalist share the stage
The simpatico of Sam Anning and Kristin Berardi. Photo Adele Varris.

The emphasis was on original repertoire and this duo showed why individually they are at the very top of Australia’s jazz talent. Their simpatico and virtuosity was evident on every piece and their new album Our Songs, Not Songs (Earshift Music) is certainly recommended. The sound in the theatre was excellent but it would be advisable for the front of house staff to allow patrons to enter only between tunes.

At 5pm in the State Theatre Courtyard, the Tal Cohen Quartet commenced. Israeli-born but Perth-educated pianist Cohen possesses a jazz conception that is virtuosic, lyrical, dynamic and frequently humorous. Now based in Miami, he surely has a strong jazz career to look forward to. With Jamie Oehlers on tenor saxophone, whom Cohen referred to as “my mentor and friend”, Karl Florisson (bass) and Ben Vanderwal (drums) this quartet most certainly delivered.

Tal Cohen plays the State Theatre Courtyard. Photo Mark Francesca.

Cohen set the stage for a most enjoyable set with the rarely played 1938 Sammy Fain composition I’ll Be Seeing You that was obfuscated both in its harmony and the delivery of the melody. His self-deprecating introduction to Cedar Meets the Jews was priceless; an attempt to write in the style of the late and great Cedar Walton had resulted in something more like a Jewish tune. Nevertheless, you might have heard in Cohen’s composition references to Firm Roots and Bolivia, two of Walton’s most famous compositions. The duo piece for piano and sax was exquisite and the interplay throughout between Cohen and the ever inspirational Vanderwal was a highlight.

Now to perhaps the climax of the 2019 Festival. The hard swinging trio rendition of Almost Like Being In Love, from Harry Mitchell (piano), Nick Abbey (bass) and Ben Vanderwal (drums) set the stage for 25 year old American vocal virtuoso Veronica Swift.

Swift is the daughter of vocalist Stephanie Nakasian and, as Swift described, “the great and late Hod O’Brien” (a jazz pianist of immense talent; check out Hod’s rendition of You and the Night and the Music]. Swift immediately put everyone on notice with an up-tempo rendition of Cole Porter’s I Get a Kick Out of You (with a possible implied dedication to Samantha Kerr). The tempo took no prisoners and the rhythm section was totally relaxed with the challenge.

Veronica Swift at the State Theatre Centre. Photo Mark Francesca.

Swift, who has toured with Wynton Marsalis, has jazz in her DNA and her scatting ability – where she vocally improvises over the harmony of a tune – is unbelievable. DownBeat magazine jazz critic Bill Milkowski has noted she has “perfect pitch and phrasing” and this was most evident. However her rendition of Lionel Bart’s As Long As He Needs Me from the musical Oliver showed that she can deliver a ballad emphatically. Incendiary, if not spontaneous combustion, might be a way of describing the quartet’s treatment of Bobby Timmons’ classic Dat Dere – an anthem of the gospel jazz or soul jazz sub-genre. The duo of vocals and bass on King Pleasure’s No Not Much provided a contrast and showed intelligent and mature programming from Swift.

The Ella Fitzgerald-inspired Pennies From Heaven invoked a standing ovation that required an encore. David Frishberg’s I’m Hip – a tune synonymous with the late Blossom Dearie – provided the icing on the cake.

This is Swift’s first visit to Australia where she also performed in Sydney and Melbourne. Her progress in the future will be followed by this scribe and I believe the festival pulled off a coup in presenting such a talented artist at the commencement of her career.

Pictured top: Veronica Swift wows the crowd with Harry Mitchell (piano), Nick Abbey (bass) and Ben Vanderwal (drums). Photo Mark Francesca.

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