Melbourne Jazz Festival 2007
The eve of the festival itself was inaugurated by Australia's annual jazz awards' ceremony known as the Bells. Graeme Bellthe legendary 90+ year old jazz veteran and award's namesakewas in attendance and gave a telling speech as did Hancock, the festival's first scheduled performer at the grand Hamer (his was a pre- sellout performance from a month previous). His band of Lionel Loueke (guitar), Nathan East (bass guitar, vocals) and Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) played Hancock's expected hits: "Watermelon Man," "Canteloupe Island and "Chameleon with Chick Corea coming in as a surprise guest at the end for an electronic keyboard duo followed by "Stella By Starlight played on two grands. Before the band rejoined and consequently dissolved the piano duo concept, the introductory glimpse of this historic occasion was what many felt to be an early festival highlight. Corea returned the following night to the same stage, performing in an as-advertised duo with legendary vibraphonist and longtime colleague Gary Burton. Recreating selections from their celebrated ECM duo Crystal Silence (1972), they revisited the title track and "Señor Mouse," closing with Corea borrowing two of Burton's four mallets for a vibe duet on Corea's own "Armando's Rhumba before he returned to the piano.
Many more duos filled the program: a threesome of Aussie duos (pianists Bob Sedergreen/Tony Gould, Joe Chindamo/Paul Grabowsky, as well as David Allardice with altoist Ken Schroder); the duo of longtime NYC- based Aussie vocalist Chris McNulty and guitarist Paul Bollenback; and the most unique showcase of the entire festivalAussie pianist Aaron Choulai with self-taught transplanted Ethiopian Israeli saxophonist/ vocalist Abate Berihun, performing together on three separate occasions.
Abate proved to be a diversely talented performer, with a unique Ethiopian sound and a penchant for exploration as vocalist or on soprano, with an inventiveness that recalled Steve Lacy and Joe McPhee, and on tenor in the spirituality and tone of Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp and Clifford Jordan. Choulai's free stride and unpredictable tendencies á la Monk, Jaki Byard and Dave Burrell served as an ideal foil following the characteristically complex Ethiopian scales upon which their repertoire was built. With each set came further introspection and deeper empathy for this musically intriguing - and as yet unrecorded - duo. Perhaps the apex of each performance (and the festival) was when Choulai placed an oversized napkin on select strings of the bass end portion of the piano's inside for "Nafkot (Longing), creating a muffled kora- like timbre that provoked explorative multi rhythmic lines and textures. "Spider Web (performed only at Bennett's) in title and performance insinuated the endless intricacies that helped formulate this magnificent fusion, helping prove that Ethiopian and jazz traditions have much in common.
Their third and final festival performance brought them their largest turnout (word had obviously traveled around the city about this special pairing), and again the music's complexity had reached an apex with regards to the duo's comfort level with seamless abandon. Abate's unique background and heritage as an escaping Ethiopian Jew during the historic mid '80s operations, not to mention his admitted minimal music contact with much else outside his reality of that time, has helped formulate a very special voice. His vocals travel from whispers and musical mumbling to scat, to emotional belting shouts, cantoresque chants and prayers; his hollers were cries, resonating in the performance space as strongly as within the soul of anyone within earshot. Abate composed and arranged much of the duo's program, which also included "Fikir (Love), a song that belongs to Tilahun Gessese (a famous Ethiopian singer), "Tselot (Prayer) and "Bahatitu Kidus Kidus (You Are Holy), a prayer sung by an Ethiopian priest in synagogue using Geez - an ancient Ethiopian language which has been used for thousands of years. Choulai, even in his most lengthy and time deconstructing unaccompanied solos, utilized a left hand that maintained the foundation of these intricate scales so much so that when Abate would re-enter, it became a natural fit and transition out of the pianist's at times more jazz-based figures. Their final festival piece was an Ethiopian blues with Alice Coltrane-like harp lines self-complementing unaccompanied classical concert piano segments with more forceful repetitive chords; Choulai's left hand blurred repeated single notes while his right focused on clusters. (In addition to there being talk that this very original collaboration will be recorded, let's hope an invitation to play New York will also be in the offing)