Festival Review: Jen Shyu amazes, Christian Scott divides & a Melbourne trombone reigns at the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues

The sun shone down strongly on Wangaratta as the numbers poured into the regional city for the 2017 Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues. Any hints of rain that may have lingered on the drive out from Melbourne were done away with quickly, as the festival lasted out three sun-drenched days with international and Australian musicians alike taking to stages in a cleverly orchestrated hub; the Wangaratta Performing Arts Centre remaining the centre of the action.

Unlike many other festivals of its calibre – we’re talking long running, with an extensive history of music behind it – national profiling and esteem outside the jazz and blues industries seems to have eluded the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues (otherwise termed, ‘Wang’) in recent years. As the festival looks to its 30th year in 2019 there’s no doubt the newly-appointed board of Festival Directors will be anticipating the growth of the event even more than it has been in 2017; if anything, it’s worth tuning into, just to see how this staple event for many in these two communities will evolve and remain a viable prospect for the longtime Wangaratta festival fan, as well as the younger demographic alike.

This year, the clout international names including Christian ScottJen Shyu (pictured above) and Jon Cleary brought to Wangaratta was impressive, though it has to be wondered if the impact landed as heavily with the crowds.

Jon Cleary’s solo set on Friday night saw a well-attended WPAC Theatre enjoy the New Orleans musician’s classic blues sounds, though politely. It was his Saturday night show on the outdoor Blues Stage in Merriwa Park that, with a live band in tow, proved to be the standout of the two appearances. Unfortunately, tech issues meant a late start, and with set times at Wangaratta being adhered to rather strictly throughout the festival, Cleary had to make do with what he had in the end. Still, the professionalism he exuded (who’d expect anything less, really) brought the show back round and had the packed out tent up out of their seats and dancing, cheering in response with each pose of the all-time question: “Do you want to get funky?”.

Christian Scott.

Which brings me to Christian Scott. The American trumpeter is currently leading the ‘new wave’, as I’ve seen it positioned by big name US publications and it’s pretty clear to see that his approach to jazz is breaking the stereotypical image some may have. Striding out onto the WPAC Theatre stage on Friday night decked out in all black, green Nikes that were brightly visible even in balcony seats, and enough gold jewellery to fund more than a few of my rent cheques, Scott is a performer any passing audience member is going to be drawn to. He holds himself with a level of confidence and gravitas that also did not go unnoticed, while his music incorporated a bombastic nature to it that trod between not only jazz, but hip hop, electronic production and tribal percussion.

Sure, a nod back to the music’s cultural beginnings, but Scott’s Friday night set was divisive, to say the least. Again, a polite crowd had filled out the WPAC Theatre, but unleashing political rhetoric and impassioned stories of his childhood fell, I couldn’t help by notice, somewhat flat with an audience more interested in hearing music they could connect with or at the very least, find a thread to latch on to. He’s an impressive trumpet player and I can definitely see where the appeal for his music has come from; however I found myself drawn to the other players in his band for much more of the set. The rhythm section was particularly expressive and on point, while the keys player showed equally decent skill, especially considering he’d only been in the band a week.

Still, for me, I found my highlights of Wangaratta elsewhere on the festival’s program and to be honest, I was happy about doing so.

Up at the Holy Trinity Cathedral on Saturday afternoon, American multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Jen Shyu performed alongside accomplished and, as I’d discover throughout the weekend, incredibly versatile drummer, Simon Barker. Shyu’s performance style injects ample amounts of drama and theatrical intensity that by the end of the piece, you’re likely to be feeling emotionally exhausted. At least, to an extent. As she moves from piano to drum, to gamelan, to Asian strings, Shyu does not stop telling stories rooted in Asian mythology and lore. Her voice is incredible; her higher register is matched by a purity in the mid that makes way for an almost subtle growl as she emphasises the chaos and drama of the scenes she describes.

Shyu’s dynamic with Barker is also impressive; she has described him as an inspiration, though watching the two play off against each other would indicate that the two artists are very much on the same creative wavelength. Shyu remains an effortlessly charming performer too; though her show is relentlessly compelling, she has moments where she breaks to joke with the audience or explain certain ‘plot’ points. A true standout of Wangaratta this year, Shyu’s presence was felt further on Sunday, where she performed with added musicians to the line up, once more taking things up another notch.

Scott Tinkler. (Photo: Marc Bongers)

Saturday also brought with it my first DRUB experience, as highly regarded and esteemed Melbourne trumpeter Scott Tinkler took charge of the WPAC Memorial Hall with his trio featuring Carl Dewhurst on guitar and Barker on drums. Heading into this set more or less straight after Jen Shyu’s proved to be a one-two punch of musical masterclasses and evocative presentations of music. Performing an hour of improvised jazz, Tinkler’s sound was, as someone I overheard after aptly put, fuck off powerful. As a less-educated-on-jazz individual, this show caught me off guard purely for the way the sound of the trumpet, warped in with the almost distorted sounds of the electric guitar and heaving percussion, landed.

Remember, this is all improvised. Yet, we’re sitting in this hall watching three incredible accomplished players lock in so well with one another you’d have sworn it was plotted out prior. The screeches of the trumpet, in with the chaotic partnership of drums and lone guitar had DRUB sounding the most metal you’d think jazz could get, certainly in terms of arrangement and sound. Definitely a penny drop moment; the older folk in the Hall streamed out as the music amped up in ferocity, but for a lot of us who remained I can guarantee that a similar thought ran through our minds: What the fuck is this greatness?

From Tinkler’s beast-like tones to Phil Slater‘s stunning work on trumpet in the WPAC Theatre on Sunday morning, Wangaratta produced some excellent opportunities for audiences to see the trumpet’s kaleidoscopic musical range on show. It was the trombone, however, that took out the top title at the National Jazz Awards, unveiled on Sunday afternoon. After two rounds of heats, Melbourne trombonist James Macaulay took home First Prize, over Melbourne/Japan-based trumpeter Niran Dasika (second place) and Sydney trumpeter Thomas Avgenicos.

James Macaulay. (Photo: ABC Jazz)

An odd inclusion on the Wangaratta program was Spiderbait who, joined by ‘The Wangaratta Horns of Death‘, performed a closing night set that drew out large numbers in a very mixed bag of a crowd. The intention and ambition was certainly there and the latter was definitely raised but the set didn’t reinvent the wheel and was way too loud.

On the Blues front though, when Caiti Baker took to the outdoor stage on Friday night, she made a great impression; off the back of the release of debut album Zinc, the Darwin singer has got much of the national music industry in the palm of her hand and as her stage presence and strength as a live performer grows, so does the delivery of Baker’s music live. One to watch further in 2018.

Driving back to Melbourne on Sunday night, I definitely came away from Wangaratta glad I’d made the trip. There’s obviously the country town charm about the town that feeds into elements of the festival but it was clear from Friday night’s programming onwards that, although the perhaps more ‘raucous’ nature of the festival’s late nights now exist more as legend than present-day occurrences, there’s still sparks of hope and potential for the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues to be ushered into a new era. One that keeps the legacy and vision of former Artistic Director Adrian Jackson in mind, but one that has both feet firmly planted in securing the festival’s place well in the now.

I’m keen to see it happen, anyway.

The reviewer attended this festival from November 3rd – 5th. For more information about the event, visit www.wangarattajazz.com.