Jazz – the language of improvisation: Melbourne International Jazz Festival 2013

Aussie Theatre’s Jan Chandler spoke with Melbourne International Jazz Festival’s Artistic Director Michael Tortoni about the upcoming Festival.

Michael Tortoni Photo:  Johannes Wosilat
Michael Tortoni
Photo: Johannes Wosilat

On Wednesday this week, in the plush surrounds of the Alto Room of the Langham hotel, the Melbourne International Jazz Festival’s 2013 program was launched.

Jazz must be one of the most difficult genres to describe as it consistently refuses to be pigeon-holed. Asked what is special about Jazz, Tortoni responds “John Coltrane! … short answer”. And the longer answer? “Freedom of expression through improvisation”.

In an interview with the Victorian College of the Arts in 2012, Tortoni also suggested that jazz is about exploring “the boundaries of jazz, questioning what’s happening in the past and looking to the future.”

With this year’s program Tortoni seems to be offering audiences a practical example of what he means by “exploring the boundaries of jazz”. The artists cover the full gamut from heavy New York avant-garde (Open Loose) to accessible classics (Joe Camilleri singing Van Morrison) and, as Tortoni adds, everything in between.

When I asked about some of the highlights I was presented with an eclectic list including: Mississippi-born singer, songwriter and guitarist Cassandra Wilson; one of the most revered exponents of Latin jazz, Chucho Valdes; bassist, composer, educator and curator of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, Christian McBride; and Thundercat, described in the program notes as “a genre-flouting virtuoso with an extraterrestrial sense of style and a supernatural ability on the bass”. And these are but a few of many noted local and international artists who will be performing during the Festival.

The musical influences on the work of these musicians are many and varied. Those who grew up after the great age of jazz, the 1930s and 1940s, when jazz was the music of the day, have drawn on the music of their day, including rock, punk and hip hope to create their jazz works.. Think Queen, Led Zeppelin, Blood Sweat and Tears, The Foo Fighters, Snoop Dogg and the Smashing Pumpkins.

And what of the challenges involved in putting together the festival program? Tortoni tells me that he firstly draws up a ‘wish list’ after which he is faced with numerous hurdles including availability, logistics and fees. It seems that persistence is an important quality as he sometimes has to pursue artists over a number of years before finally being able to secure them for a performance.

5-time Grammy Award winner pianist Chucho Vales
5-time Grammy Award winner pianist Chucho Vales

The Melbourne International Jazz Festival seems to get bigger and better with every passing year. It prides itself in giving musicians the opportunity of improving and extending their skills by working closely with other musicians and by taking the opportunity of attending free masterclasses held by some of the international guests. Equally, audiences are given the opportunity of expanding their knowledge and understanding of the language of jazz by experiencing performances by some of the most noted jazz musicians of our day, both local and international.

This year there are also two new initiatives.

The first, Unleash the Best, is an online student competition with a prize of $50,000 for the winner. The top ten performers will secure a gig in the Festival. There is no restriction on the style of music and the final judgement will be made purely on the quality of the music..

The second wlll be a swing party. 774’s Roaring Swing will be a night to remember for all those who love the swing music of 1920s New York City. Michael McQuald and his Red Hot Rhythmakers along with Leigh Barker and the New Skeiks will shake up the Melbourne Town Hall. Dancers from Swing Patrol will teach the basics of the charleston and everyone is encouraged dress ‘swanky and spiffy’ in flapper dresses and two-toned shoes.

As well as the main performance program there will be a number of free events including daily concerts, an opportunity to hear two of the greats, Chucho Valdes and Christian McBride in conversation with ABCs Gerry Koster and, for night owls, there will be the festival’s late-night art party, The Cave, where you’ll be able to experience collaborations between Australian and international artists.

Asked what he would like audiences to take away from their experience of the Festival Tortoni responds simply, ‘How wonderful music is.’ He also expresses the hope that people will not only hear great music but discover something new by exploring the breadth of the program.

The 2013 Melbourne International Jazz Festival will run for 10 days from 31 May until 9 June. There will be nearly 100 events including 10 Australian premieres and 8 Festival exclusives.

So jump online, check out the program and start drawing up your wish list. There are so many wonderful performers whose names I haven’t been able to mention that you are sure to find any number of events and performances that will be a must for any lover of great music.


Jan Chandler

Jan has been working freelance in the arts industry for some 15+ years in a variety of roles including: arts management; journalism (print, radio and online); publicity; and media relations. Passionate about the arts in all their variety, Jan has worked in film (production assistant; reviewer); dance (publicity; producer and presenter of 'Dance Dialogues - 3CR) and Board Member of Ausdance (Victoria)); performing arts (company manager, performer, reviewer, online editor). Jan had the honour of being the General Manager of Ilbijerri Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Theatre for some 18 months.

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