Joshua Redman, Chick Corea with Gary Burton, Pablo Ziegler, and Dawn of Midi were among the the standout international acts at this year’s Wellington Jazz Festival.
Jazz. A smooth, all-purpose word that hides a roiling mass of contradictory musical impulses and history, from Buddy Bolden, Dixieland and big bands all the way through swing and be-bop out to fusion, free jazz and third stream, and then back again, stopping off at any number of waystations for interbreeding along the way. Now that we’re into jazz’s second century, a jazz festival, curatorially speaking, has its work cut out: how do you do justice to this unruly sprawling genre?
The Wellington Jazz Festival’s international big names this year seem curated to tackle this remit head-on. The festival’s opening night selection, Joshua Redman, could be seen as an easy in—a straight-up pitch down the middle. Before the gig, an excited man in the lavatory accosted me to share his excitement, linking this gig in personal importance to previous ones by Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman. Almost 40 years their junior, Redman’s a proud torch-bearer. His quartet is as traditional as it gets in instrumentation—sax, bass, piano, and drums—and from the first number, ‘Summertime’, his commitment to the canon was clear. Redman’s a dexterous, smooth player, with a genteel stage manner and a dapper dress sense, and his repertoire erred towards ballads and the bucolic. Underneath the pleasing surface, however, it was clear that his ensemble was capable of much more, with drummer Greg Hutchinson taking endless joyful liberties in his rhythmic expression while the piano and bass carried the rhythm, the three becoming more expansive and daring when Redman stepped away from the stage. Gradually, other influences revealed themselves, most notably in ‘Adagio’, a Bach arrangement that gave bassist Reuben Rogers a chance to shine. The gig built to a finale where Redman finally cut loose, allowing himself to push his timbre into grittier registers and experiment with circular breathing. Whether the enthusiastic standing ovation at the end of ‘Leap of Faith’ was in response to Redman’s own leap outside his comfort zone or an endorsement of the night as a whole is open for debate; a soothing encore of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Infant Eyes’ made it clear that whatever the quartet was capable of, their spiritual home remains in the unthreatingly beautiful.
Lest that seem churlish, I got more pleasure from another performance that could also be described as “unthreatingly beautiful.” Pianist Chick Corea comfortably qualifies as a living legend, and came with his colleague of 43 years, vibraphonist Greg Burton. Corea mentioned at the outset of the gig that it was the first time the two had played together in over a year, but where some (like the person seated next to me) may have heard a rusty duo warming into their set, I felt the pure and simple joy of two old friends striking up a conversation. (To be fair, they were also literally warming up: Miami resident Corea found the air conditioning oppressive, donning a jacket to fend off the cold.) The first half of the set drew from jazz classics and their own catalogue—their most recent record, Hot House, represented heavily. The second half of the set began with the two tapping out a rhythm on the body of the piano, playing a number by Antonio Carlos Jobim they’d each learned in Stan Getz’s band (one having replaced the other at the ivories). While this integration of Latin rhythms was the highlight of the night for me, I was slightly less taken by their cover of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and an original Corea composition that leaned heavily on Mozart. Others took more warmly to these pieces, and in my case all was quickly forgiven with an encore that ended with the two trading fours on the vibraphone as they went back to the heart of their collaboration: traditional jazz.
Earlier in the evening, Latin influences took center stage. Argentinian pianist Pablo Ziegler commanded a heaving orchestra on the Opera House stage—I lost track at 26, with him and his rhythm section holding the centre. Ziegler’s trade is nuevo tango, which more suited to WOMAD than a jazz festival; however, the tango itself derived from European roots, its dancehall traditions dovetail nicely with that of jazz, and Ziegler’s planning would sometimes nod to the boogie-woogie in runs between more traditional passages. My imagination quickly ran to the cinematic; the orchestral flavors (and the necessary lack of free-flowing improvisation in a large ensemble) no doubt contributed, as did an Astor Piazzolla composition from Bertolucci’s film 1900. The cliché is that the tango is fiery, but for whatever truth there is to that cliché, onstage Ziegler’s demeanor was calm, playful and gracious. If the Wellington orchestra missed any subtleties in the compositions that he’d been accustomed to back in Buenos Aires, you wouldn’t have known from Ziegler’s warm smile and gracious acknowledgement of soloists after each piece. The audience truly couldn’t get enough; by the time Ziegler returned for the fifth encore (the most I can recall from any performance I’ve ever seen), they’d worked through every piece available (and delighted the audience with a stunning guest accordion appearance, the first time I’ve heard effortlessly executed vibrato on that unruly instrument), and Ziegler graced us with a solo performance. The playful final notes evoked a laugh from the audience, a warming conclusion to my highlight performance of the festival.
The international performances were only a taste of what the festival had on offer; dozens of gigs by local musicians happened concurrently, reflecting influences from big band to Sun Ra, and helped color in the stylistic spaces between the bigger-name guests. The closing night selection, by contrast, pushed the boat out as far as it would go. On paper, Brooklyn-based Dawn of Midi are a young piano/bass/drums trio from an avant-garde background. That’s where a comfortable fit of their music into the “jazz” cubbyhole ends. The group performed their most recent album, Dysnomia, which over headphones barely betrays its acoustic roots—without visuals to tip your judgment, it could easily be perceived as electronica. That’s in part due to the rhythmic influences, phasing patterns that seem algorithmic, recalling Steve Reich or David Tudor at times and early 80s synthesizer-based movie soundtracks heard through a wall at other times, and in part because of the instrumental approach. Pianist Amino Belyamani keeps one hand inside the piano at all times, muting the strings, resulting in a hollow sound that melds with the other two players in a mesmerising manner. Their live show allows you to pick out each voice—I would concentrate on a different player at different times, feeling the counterrhythms of the others pass by me, then change focus to somebody else like a gear shift. One might be reminded of Melbourne trio The Necks, who employ the same instrumentation and have some surface sonic similarities; however, where The Necks rely on improvisation and interplay to gradually build their epic soundscapes, a process that draws the listener in, Dawn of Midi hews incredibly closely to their compositions, giving the procedure less of the thrill of discovery and more the sense of watching an incredible technical accomplishment—undeniably impressive, but lacking a certain frisson. But all in all, a worthy end to a strong festival, and if I did leave wondering if Dawn of Midi counted as jazz, that’s not intended as a criticism of curation, but a celebration of expansiveness.