Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival 2-13 November 2016


This was SIMA’s fifth Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival, and a resounding success all told. Held mostly at the Foundry 616 it started with a flourish with Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana, who has already released four albums although yet to turn 28, who plays with the confidence and suppleness of someone twice her years. Accompanied by a bassist, Pablo Menaras, and a drummer, Chris Stranahan, both totally in tune with her, and capable of dense solos as well as complementing her superb runs and flourishes. Aldana has already won the Thelonius Monk International Jazz competition, the first woman to do so, as well as the first South American. She has come under the influence of Sonny Rollins, whom she interviewed recently, but she also comes a family lineage stretching back to her grandfather, Enrique Aldana, whose Selmer Mark VI tenor sax she performs with. She studied with her father, Marcos Aldana, before moving to New York, where she has been absorbed into the US mainstream jazz scene with apparent ease, although her most recent album, Back Home, harks back to her Chilean origins. (Commenting on the number of Chileans and South Americans in the Foundry audience, she said she felt like she was ‘back home’ here too.) The New York Times described her latest album as ‘unburdened by legacy’, implying she is fortunately not too concerned with US hegemony and tradition, and she certainly plays with a fluidity which is outstanding, both in her improvisations and her composed work. Although she confined herself mostly to US standards like Monk’s I Mean You and ended with a hugely impressive Dewey Redman’s Dewey’s Tune, she also found room for some her own pieces as well. One surprise was a lengthy version of Rollins’ Someday I’ll Find You, a Noel Coward piece which Rollins played when he was in Sydney a couple of years ago, which she really bent into all kinds of different shapes. A full house emptied out somewhat after interval, suggesting that some of the audience were not willing to stay the distance. Their loss.

Ingrid and Christine Jensen are Canadian sisters who play trumpet and saxophone respectively, and their first outing with the now 75 year old Mike Nock and his trio was more of a dress rehearsal in which the local trio did a fantastic job of getting up to speed with their compositions. Gardening seems to play quite a big role in Christine’s compositions, as more than just a metaphor, and Ingrid is a force to reckon with in sea themes. The former is based in Montreal, where she leads large and small ensembles, and the latter in New York, where she leads her own quartet as well as playing in a number of other groups, and they’ve deservedly both won Juno Awards in Canada, having been in the music business for 25 years. The duo returned to guest with the Sydney Women’s Jazz Collective for two nights, making its debut appearance led by Ellen Kirkwood on trumpet and Hannah James on double bass, featuring local compositions as well as their own works, with prominent players such as saxophonist Sandy Evans, pianist Emma Stephenson – the most recent winner of the Jann Rutherford prize – guitarist Sorcha Albuquerque and baritone saxophonist Anna Leckie. It was an auspicious debut, and one hopes to see and hear more of them on a regular basis.

Born in Guadeloupe, French Caribbean singer Tricia Evy has been to Australia 15 times, visiting the Manly jazz festival in Sydney and the Devonport jazz festival in Tasmania among other places, as well as travelling the world. She moved to France in 2006, and apart from specialising in the beguine, a Caribbean dance similar to the fox trot, she performs standards by Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday and Chet Baker, whose I Fall in Love Too Easily she performed for us, along with her own original songs. She also specialises in the music of the Antilles and in scat singing a la Ella Fitzgeald. This was the first time she had performed here with her favourite pianist David Fackeure, with whom she has been collaborating for the past five years. She played to a full house at the Foundry, delighting the crowd with her mixture of standards and more exotic Caribbean fare.

Shannon Barnett is a trombonist who was the Young Australian Jazz Artist of the Year in 2007 and released her debut album in 2010. She is currently based in Cologne, where she has been playing with the WDR Big Band, and has her own German quartet consisting of sax, bass and drums. She brought them to Australia for the Wangaratta Jazz Festival as well as this festival, with the help of the Goethe Institute, and was featured on Radio National’s Music Show recently. She is an impressive soloist on an unusual instrument for solos, and well complemented by her band.

Microfiche is a new 6 piece group featuring Emma Stephenson on piano and keyboard and Holly Conner on drums with guys on double bass, trumpet and piano and keyboards, who are mentored by trumpeter Phil Slater and drummer Simon Barker. They combine compositions by members of the group linked by improvisations, played in extended pieces lasting around half an hour. Perhaps influenced by the Necks, they play in a rather freer form and show some promise. The Festival Band Night took place at the Venue 505 and featured three groups of younger musicians. Sorcha Albuquerque, a talented guitarist and cellist who is part of the Sydney Women’s Jazz Collective, headed up a trio who had to be replaced at the last minute due to illness, but did a great job in the circumstances, and is proving to be a prodigious guitarist. Crossover was a trio led by Irish drummer and vocalist Bonnie Stewart, who told us there are more women involved in jazz in Sydney than there are in Ireland, and drummed up a storm accompanied by scat singing. Pheno featured electric guitarist and vocalist Jess Green along with Stewart and Alyx Dennison on vocals and keys, who were more of a rock outfit with a touch of new age synthesis.

Sorcha Albuquerque was back the follwing night to back Perth-based Iranian singer Tara Tiba, along with saxophonist Laura Corney, who played several solos, Brazilian bassist Arvis Mena, drummer Paul Derricott and Persian percussionist Saeed Danesh. Tiba was born in Tehran in 1984 shortly after female singers were prohibited from performing in public, and began studying western classical piano before switching to the classical Persian ‘Radif’ system with noted Iranian singer Hengameh Akhavan. She moved to Perth in 2012 and did a jazz course at WAAPA, forming her band in 2013 with local jazz musicians and specialising in Iranian classical music and improvisations of Persian poetry of the 11th, 13th and 14th century, along with new arrangements of traditional songs and original pieces. She made a big impact at Womadelaide in 2015, performing on International Women’s Day, after releasing her first album A Persian Dream in the same year, combining traditional Persian songs with jazz stylings. She is currently recording her second album in Spain with producer Javier Limon. Iranian exiles, many of whom knew the words to songs, dominated the audience and the atmosphere was quite electric.

The final night featured New York-based Australian pianist Barney McCall and prodigious drummer Simon Barker along with Melbourne vocalist Gian Slater, who among other things, has the distinction of having collaborated with Sia Furler on the composition ‘Firefly’ along with Barney McCall and the 16 piece choir Invenio she formed on the 2012 CD GRAFT.

Slater is a highly unusual singer who performs her own low-key compositions which are frequently wordless and opaque, but not the same as scat singing. She performed a continuous set tonight without interval, developing an intimate connection with the audience. The Festival ended on a low-key not with this trio, but it was a thoroughly rewarding experience, showcasing not only a considerable storehouse of local female talent but also a number of outstanding international performers. All credit to SIMA, co-artistic directors Zoe Hauptman and Peter Rechniewski, and all the funding bodies that keep it going.


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.