Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival 4-15 November 2015 Reviewed by Tony Mitchell


The Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival started in 2012, with support from the City of Sydney, who will continue to support it as long as mayor Clover Moore survives the amalgamations of Sydney Councils planned by current premier Mike Baird. The Sydney Improvised Music Association (SIMA) and the festival’s artistic directors, Peter Rechniewski and Joanne Kee, head the team who run the festival, along with SIMA general manager Amy Curl. It is held mostly at Foundry 616 just off Railway Square in Central Sydney, but this year consisted of 17 performances over 12 days in four different venues.

Things started strongly with Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett, a long-term devotee of Cuban jazz, and Maqueque, a quintet of Afro-Cuban women who raised the roof with six concerts, one of which took place in Wollongong. Maqueque means ‘the energy of a young girls’s spirit’, a rather demure translation of this group’s ferocious energy, formidable talent and high spirits. Bunnett, who has visited Sydney a few times previously, alternated on flute and soprano sax, with the very tall and Afro-ed Daymé Arocena on vocals and percussion, a very young and stylish pianist, Dánae Olano, Celia Jimenez on bass, who shared vocals for some numbers, the very punk-looking Yissy Gracia, daughter of a famous Cuban drummer, on drums, and Magdelys Savigne providing percussion, mostly in the form of congas, as well as vocals. There were a few enthusiastic young Cuban women in the audience too, who provided lots of vocal support, and it was mostly music to dance to, jazz with strong salsa and rhumba rhythms, which didn’t work so well in this venue with mostly dinner tables and residual standing room. There was a packed house on the Saturday night, when Maqueque went on to provide midnight jam session, and they got the festival off with a bang.

Sydney local Jenna Cave’s 19 piece mixed gender Divergence Orchestra, co-led by Paul Weber on trombone, did the honours on Sunday night, to a smaller audience, including a second half devoted to and featuring Czech-Australian trumpeter Miroslav Bukovsky of Ten Part Invention and Wanderlust, among other groups, who taught Cave at the ANU School of Music and the Sydney Conservatory. Divergence Orchestra is proficient without being prodigious, especially pianist Andrew Scott, bassist Hannah James and Vietnamese-Australian guitarist Luke Liang. Otherwise it is mostly brass, and they have just one album out so far, Opening Statement. Monday night was called Future Voices, was free of charge, and featured three up-and-coming young female artists, Laura Altman (woodwinds and vocals), Francesca Pirhasti (piano), and Mary Rapp (double bass). Altman is part of the ‘style free’ movement group Prophets, but her performance in a duo with guitarist Peter Farrar, who played some very stylish African-style licks, both decked out in elaborate costumes, seemed more suited to a children’s party, with songs like ‘Mr Owl’ and ‘Cuttlefish’ (complete with fish prop) generating rather twee fun.

Highly proficient Indonesian pianist Francesca Prihasti played skilled Monk and Herbie Hancock covers as well as her own compositions, and already has an album out, Night Trip, but I was more impressed by her very stylish and elegant drummer, Jodie Michael, who also has her own trio, as well as a project called Broken Time, and at 23 shows signs of becoming a musician to take notice of. She has already won the 2013 Jann Rutherford Memorial Award, given to outstanding young female jazz musicians, has studied in New York and at the Sydney Con, and seems to be going places. As Sydney Morning Herald jazz reviewer John Shand noted in 2013: ‘The proportion of female musicians active outside of classical music remains lamentably small, and the number of drummers minuscule. But the emergence of Jodie Michael on Sydney’s jazz scene is even more notable because she is a drummer with an uncommonly fluid rhythmic sense’. She was also involved in a collaboration in this festival with New York African-American bassist and vocalist Mimi Jones and saxophonist and vocalist Camille Thurman, which I didn’t get to see, but I’m sure she was able to hold her own in this distinguished company. Mary Rapp has a distinctive style in her arco double bass playing, and she had just graduated from university that day, so gave something of a celebratory performance. She normally plays cello as well, but decided to focus on double bass for tonight. The Future Voices night featured mainly recent graduates from the Sydney Con, with whom I was previously unfamiliar, and they are all already making their careers, so it was great to see so much emerging talent.

The following night featured a Festival commission by Ars Musica, presented by Sydney jazz label Jazzgroove, trumpeter Ellen Kirkwood’s Mieville Project, inspired by the ‘new weird’ British sci fi author China Mieville. It featured Sandy Evans on saxes, Hannah James on bass, Emma Stephenson on piano, Caroline Levien as the narrator, and the only male of the group, Alon Isar on drums and ‘air sticks’. These are described as ‘a one-of-a-kind gestural electronic drum kit’, and a ‘new 3D timbral Theremin [which]allows the triggering and manipulation of sounds and visuals and the live sampling and manipulation of other live instruments in a 3D virtual space, completely blurring the line between drumming, sound designing and dancing’. Isar and Evans also performed a curtain raiser as a duo, receiving a rapturous response from the audience, which included Evans’ good friend Jane Bunnett and the Afro Cubans, who were on hand to lend support. Evans improvised on soprano and tenor sax, with Isar doing his air stick thing as well as playing the drums. The Mieville Project was a dramatised, interactive piece, with the musicians interacting physically with one another and occasionally with the audience in a sometimes comical way, and Evans providing a star performance. It began with Motion Demons, based on an excerpt from Mieville’s Iron Council, in which devils play like porpoises among the wheels of a moving train. The piece featured train-like rhythms, with sax and piano representing the porpoise action. Wormword featured more interaction between words and music, with some audience participation, in which our ability with words was subjected to decay and disintegration. Slake Moth started ominously with James’ arco bass, and explored the contours of this imaginary creature. The final piece, Construct, from Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, represented a robot-like machine being reprogrammed to think, which used a lot of Ilsar’s electronic effects, as might be expected, but concluded with a witty solo from Kirkwood. Hopefully this piece will be recorded soon to give us a chance to hear it again. I noticed the guy sitting next to me had one of Mieville’s books with him, maybe to check the veracity of proceedings? In any case it was a highly enjoyable evening, and great to see so many female jazz musicians on display.

Other festival events featured the prolific Sandy Evans, clearly the doyenne of Australian jazz at 55, having received her PhD from Macquarie University last year with a Vice Chancellor’s Commendation, and an Order of Australia in 2010. She took part in a free open air concert with Indian tabla player Bobby Singh at the Glebe Street Fair, unfortunately dampened by rain. Alex Hahn and the Blue Riders performed a tribute to Etta James, while vocalist Michelle Nicole and Virna Sansone and the Bop Darlings also gave concerts. If there is one criticism I have of the festival, the international part of it tends to focus too much on North Americans, with the notable exception of the delightful Afro-Cuban woman, and it would be good to see more women jazz musicians from elsewhere, such as the baritone sax player Celine Bonacina and her trio from France (and La Réunion), and another baritone saxophonist, the eccentric Finnish Linda Frederikson with her group Mopo. The excellent Finnish group Kokko Quartet, who include women on sax and piano, are touring Australia in early December, which will at least keep women jazz musicians in the spotlight a little longer.


About Author

Tony Mitchell is an honoraray research associate at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has edited a number of books: on global hip hop (Global Noise, 2001), on Australian Popular Music (Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now, 2008), and New Zealand Music (Home Land and Sea, 2011). He is currently co-editing a book about Icelandic music.

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