Freedman Jazz 2017

The Studio, October 30


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Emma Stephenson. Photo: Frank Crews.

This could be cast as a win for composition over improvisation, although one could attend Freedman Jazz happily oblivious to its being a competition at all, and simply enjoy a celebration of creative music. This 15th edition again emphasised the diversity of music performed under the loose but bravely fluttering banner of jazz. It also reinforced the commendably collegiate nature of the event, with the eventual winner, Emma Stephenson, playing piano with another finalist, Ellen Kirkwood, and Ben Hauptmann playing guitar with both Kirkwood and the third finalist, Nick Garbett.

Stephenson’s Hieronymous Trio, completed by bassist Nick Henderson and drummer Oli Nelson, was joined by guest singer Kristin Berardi. The strength of Stephenson’s compositions, drawn from the album Where the Rest of the World Begins, reflected her gift for building a compelling tension into her work, whether structurally, rhythmically, harmonically or melodically; a tension that fuelled the sense of narrative and momentum. Her own playing could be luminous, and she is also a lyricist of depth and panache, able to sculpt syllables as deftly as semiquavers.

She and her colleagues brought an improviser’s mentality and vocabulary to bear on material that really has as much in common with the western art-music tradition as with jazz, although Berardi emphasised that jazz connection more than Gian Slater did on the recording. Stephenson will use the Freedman Foundation’s generous $20,000 prize to record a new cycle of songs with New York-based Australian singers, and to establish an on-line distribution system to help other artists reach audiences.

Were the competition judged purely on electrifying improvising Garbett would probably have won. His trumpet playing carried gripping vitality, supported by endlessly nuanced articulation and a sophisticated use of echo and delay devices. He performed with the Vampires, the band he co-leads with saxophonist Jeremy Rose, completed by drummer Alex Masso, double bassist Jonathan Zwartz, percussionist Giorgio Rojas and, as mentioned, Hauptmann. If the composing ultimately lacked the overwhelming originality of Stephenson’s work, their engaging set did spawn a glorious solo from Zwartz, who turned funk into a form of innuendo.

Kirkwood presented excerpts from her suite [A]part, which was reviewed in its entirety in these pages in August, and here a marked increase in confidence was already evident, even if one sensed the work could be rendered with still greater audacity.