Monday, May 5, 2008

MJIF Jam Sessions @ Bennetts Lane: Where they belong!

MJIF Jam Sessions @ Bennetts Lane

Wed 30/4 – Sun 4/5: 12am – 3am

House Band: Sam Keevers Trio featuring Gian Slater

Sam Keevers – piano
Des White – double bass
Ben Vanderwal – drums
Gian Slater – voice

Yeah man! Every night throughout the festival there was a jam session at Bennetts Lane from midnight until 3. The first set was Sam Keevers Trio + Gian Slater, playing close to the same material each night, before the second set opened up the floor for a jam.

The atmosphere at these events was absolutely blissful. To a down-under-er who romanticises the fabled late night jam sessions so deliciously crucial to the rich history of this music, being here was paradise. In the smaller of two rooms at Bennetts Lane, the vibe was hot and the music was, for the most part, truly cookin’.

Sam’s quartet members deserve medals of honour, or I guess baggy greens, for surviving what he came to dub the ‘Melbourne Jazz five-day test’. They did so with pure class and musical integrity. An original trio piece or two of Sam’s generally opened the proceedings. His writing is disciplined and studied, using fourthsy voicings and broad, sweeping rhythmic figures to stitch lush canvases for improvisation. Check out his myspace to hear his playing.

Des White looks too young to be such a great player. His lines have a simple maturity combined with a bold sense of taste. His rhythm is strong and impeccable, meaning that he can anchor the trio while still rocking the waves of rhythmic displacement they all so enjoy riding. He rocks back and forth, seeming to deeply feel the rhythm mainly on two and four, which is pretty amazing considering the complexity of some of the time feels and the looseness of the swing.

Which brings us to Ben Vanderwal. I love watching Ben play because even though he puts out this great nonchalant attitude of ‘yeah, whatever’, he can’t help but play beautifully almost all the time. He has these hands that he just throws around the kit, floating them from piece to piece. It’s done in the precise but relaxed way that a solid rock drummer would play a fill, but inserted into the music with the syncopation and sophistication of a highly developed jazz vocabulary. The time is solid but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to follow him everywhere he goes! His cavalier solos on Monk’s Think of One were often highlights. Just to cap it all off, he plays a wicked back-beat.

Hearing Gian Slater was a revelatory experience, night after night. She’s a scatter through and through and can improvise like a great horn player, with amazing vocal control. She’s a Lydian kinda gal and has this amazing ability to hear the sharp 11 of any major or dominant chord in some fast-shifting changes and start her line from there. Flying loop-de-loop with gorgeous, playful arpeggios, she linked ideas in a seamless way that suggested she could have gone all night. She scats with eyes shut tight, but her face depicts her inner visualisations clear as day and you can just feel when she’s about to go for it.

Some people found Gian’s use of very high register off-putting but I never got tired of hearing her get up there, higher than you thought possible. Across the first few nights, her delivery of the actual lyrics was sometimes a bit disconnected, particularly on the standards, but once she settled in to the residency she opened up a bit more emotionally. The originals, including my personal favourite Don’t Close the Door, as well as the cover of Canadian singer-songwriter Leslie Feist (brought to the band by Sam), were exciting forays into the emotive power of jazz and rock feels smashed beautifully together.

Here’s a snapshot of some of the highlights from the second set jams:

Wed 30 Apr

Kurt Elling’s drummer Kobe Watkins and bass player Rob Amster sat in on a couple of cookin’ tunes. This was the first glimpse of how much fun it can be to see a musician play a decidedly sideman gig with a big-name act in a concert hall, then get to see them head on down to the after-hours club to let off some steam! Aside from those guys, if there was anything exciting I’ve forgotten it all these days later. I remember there was a disappointingly low number of musicians on hand to sit in on the first night. Luckily, that changed!

Thu 1 May

I arrived just in time to see an amazing, energetic young Melbourne pianist named Adam Rudegeair launch into Well You Needn’t. He oozes Monk and is unashamed in his adoration for and emulation of the great man. Dr Abdullah Ibrahim’s trombonist Stafford Hunter and alto-ist Cleave Guyton launched onto the stage after Adam’s solo to huge applause and took the already-high thing through the roof.

Imagine the intensity with which a couple of New Yorkers who have just played the most restrained, delicate, 2-hour gig of their lives might unleash the beast and you have some idea of the spectacle!
There were plenty of musicians on hand to sit in tonight, including some great local talent. There were also a couple of faltering moments, but there was generally enough combined experience and wisdom among the rhythm sections to avert train-wrecks and wrap things up when trouble loomed.

The stole was ultimately stolen, smash and grab style, by an English backpacker named Nancy who, for all her musical inconsistency, belted out a couple of showstoppers with the absolute conviction that she was going to give us a night to remember. It’s a quirky pleasure to behold someone going at it full pelt and man, Sam Anning, Ben VanderWal and Sam Keevers did a ridiculous job of keeping One Note Samba happening beneath lyrics that morphed, shifted and sometimes weren’t there at all! Nancy did succeed in getting people to dance and I think generally a good time was had by all, more good than harm done. Wherever you are in the world Nancy, good on you for giving it a red hot go!

Fri 2 May

This sucker was sold out, full to overflowing before the band even hit! It hurt because my friend Melissa Western and I had our hearts set on a late-night jazz fix. It really was packed though and much respect to the wonderful Bennetts staff who dealt admirably with the unpleasant task of turning away would-be jazzers. We peeked in for awhile, just long enough to hear Gian get up in the clouds.

Sat 3 May

Melbourne-ites seemed to pop out of the woodwork tonight. The audience were treated to some very hip combos of local talent including Jamie Oehlers, Mike Storey, Raj (great young drummer, sorry dude I don’t know your last name!), Marc Hannaford and a technically-astounding trumpet player whose name I didn’t catch. The place was packed and each throw-together band rose to the occasion, carving up some Beautiful Love, Nardis and other familiar standards.

There was a Georgia On My Mind in which the band gave a master-class on how to wind up a song tastefully yet immediately when a singer clearly doesn’t know what they’re doing. We’re talking about a singer who, during the first couple of A-sections of a nice guitar solo, repeatedly invited the audience to applaud the bass player and pianist. Ouch, lady. Other than this, the specifics of this jam in particular are a bit lost in the festival blur, but there sure were some great moments and a pleasing revolving personnel.

Sun 4 May

The finale. Jon Weber on stage with JD Allen, George Mitchell and Raj (go Raj!) was so great. You can’t hear in your head how great the music was – that’s the whole conundrum with trying to write about the music for y’all. But if you can get yourself to a place where there are real hot jam sessions with world-class players, you can feel most the exact same excitement I felt hearing these cats go to town. There are no barriers to communication when everyone’s ears are open and they’re playing with their hearts and minds invested moment to moment. Few words were needed. This is where it’s at.

The night wound up with some less mind-blowing performances that were still fun to watch. There was a great Footprints (my favourite tune) in which a phenomenally articulate six-string electric bass player dug in with Ben Vdw and grooved the living daylights out of the 6/8 time signature. It was over pretty suddenly and surprisingly I craved more, only more bittersweet music, late into the night, early into the morning.

But alas...

All good things must come to an end. My deepest thanks go to Les, Lisa, Anna and the crew of hard-working festival staff and volunteers. They are the cogs that make the whole machine run smoothly and deliver us these amazing listening opportunities. Anna also deserves a special shout-out for being keeper of the jam session clipboard and seducing great players onto the stage with her charms.

There’s a cool thing that happens when you walk away from something like that last jam – the music keeps on playing in your ears. Getting home and lying down in bed means the jam starts up all over again! Even the next morning I was hearing Gian Slater lines soaring up in the sky, the trams were ricketing along the tracks in hip 6/8 and the music of the moment was the wind in the trees as I stepped out onto the streets for my first ‘non-jazz’ day in over a week. Although from one perspective, there is no such thing!