Sarah McKenzie. Image supplied by Stonnington Jazz.
Brilliant improvisation is a hallmark of jazz music. ‘While many forms of music may use the dynamic of improvisation, jazz exemplifies the unique characteristic of collective improvisation,’ says jazz educator DC DowDell.
Improvisation skills are also something that Stonnington Jazz Artistic Director, Adrian Jackson, brings to the festival programming. Jackson, also the director of the acclaimed Wangaratta International Jazz Festival, has been artistic director at Stonnington since the festival’s inception nine years ago. It is Jackson’s inspired curation of the 11-day festival and his ability to bring unique collaborations together that underwrite the festival’s national reputation.
‘Adrian Jackson is continually reinventing things at Stonnington Jazz by putting unique collaborations together. Putting a string quartet with jazz — it can work — or it can’t — but it does!’ explains Liz Smallridge, Stonnington Jazz Coordinator.
‘We don’t want to present the same old trio you see anywhere else because that’s just not special, it’s not different. At Stonnington Jazz people get a chance to experience things they can’t experience at other festivals,’ Smallridge says.
Adrian Jackson maintains that musicians coming to Stonnington Jazz value the opportunity to play together in a combination they might not normally get the chance to.
Jackson nominates the Gianni Marinucci-Steve Grant Quintet, performing at Chapel Off Chapel on 25 May, as one example. ‘You’ve got Gianni and Steve playing in a band where they’re both playing trumpet,’ Jackson says. ‘They both thought that was a great idea and hopefully they will do it on an ongoing basis.’
Visionary programming is just one of the reasons why a Council-presented event has become a national phenomenon. In 2013, Stonnington Jazz was the winner of Best Arts, Cultural or Music Event in Victorian at the Australian Event Awards. The award also commends an event’s contribution to the art form and the positive ways in which it enhances the industry and community.
‘It was quite a thrill to get that recognition because a number of very strong events were also nominated,’ Jackson says. Stonnington Jazz was also listed by Time Out Sydney as one of Australia’s top seven jazz festivals.
‘Stonnington is a jazz festival and although other forms and styles are incorporated, it’s really all about jazz,’ Jackson says. The only all-Australian jazz festival in the country, Stonnington is also committed to bringing the public 100% Australian jazz.
‘We feature 100% Australian performers and it’s an affirmation of how strong the local jazz scene is that we can present such a program without needing to bring in international artists,’ Jackson says.
In fact, Stonnington Jazz acts as a satellite for internationally acclaimed Australian artists working abroad. In 2014, the festival welcomes back Chris McNulty and Sarah McKenzie who headline the Malvern Town Hall concerts with the Jazz Vocals Showcase on opening night 15 May.
Originally from Melbourne, McNulty has been based in New York since 1988. McNulty’s mesmerising voice, timbre and articulation saw her take home the Bell Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album of 2013.
Sarah McKenzie first performed at Stonnington Jazz four years ago as a guest vocalist with Australian jazz legend, James Morrison. She went on to win an ARIA award for her second ABC Jazz album Close Your Eyes. After working with Michael Bublé and Grammy award winner, Johnny Mandel, McKenzie was offered a scholarship to study at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.
Also based in New York, McKenzie returns to Stonnington Jazz especially to reconnect with the intimate environment the festival fosters for artists and audience alike.
‘Stonnington Jazz’s has a real family attitude towards its artists,’ McKenzie says. ‘Because I started at a young age, the organisers of Stonnington Jazz became like family for me. I can’t wait to see everyone!’
One of the festival’s rising stars, McKenzie’s experience testifies to Stonnington Jazz’s commitment to nurturing new and emerging talent. ‘We’re always trying to look at emerging talent and think about the future of the art form,’ Liz Smallridge says. ‘Maybe that’s because we’re a Council — we’re community minded,’ she observes.
The festival’s collaboration with local schools through the Stonnington Youth Jazz Initiative, helmed by Bob Sedergreen, and with students and faculty at the Sir Zelman Cowan School of Music, Monash University, lead by Vince Jones, reinforces Stonnington’s investment in the evolution of the jazz form. ‘We don’t have a formal association with [Monash] at this stage, but that may happen in the future,’ Jackson says.
Stonnington Jazz’s ability to combine emerging talent with Australian jazz greats is dependent on their capacity to keep attracting the big names. ‘I think they enjoy the experience,’ Smallridge says about 2014 return headliners including James Morrison, Vince Jones, Joe Chindamo, Allan Browne, Bob Sedergreen and Doug de Vries.
‘We’re very friendly and the musicians find it a very personal festival,’ Smallridge says. ‘Joe Chindamo, James Morrison — they all want to play it. They’re ringing Adrian right after it saying, don’t forget us next year!’
For Stonnington Jazz, the close proximity of events and venues has helped facilitate a dialogue between artists which bears fruit for future festivals. ‘Sometimes you’ll see musicians in the audience checking out each other’s work or someone might make a surprise guest appearance to sit in with another band,’ Jackson says.
This fertile environment stimulates further growth for the festival. While Jackson facilitates the festival’s program, artists often get ideas for new projects while participating in the festival. ‘Sometimes it’s just talking in the green room afterwards and they come up with an idea for next year: “Why don’t we do this?!” Smallridge says.
From an international perspective, Sarah McKenzie believes that an array of factors combine to make Stonnington Jazz a first-class festival. ‘Stonnington Jazz is one of the jazz world’s best kept secrets,’ she says.
For the full program see Stonnington Jazz 2014.