The Studio, September 8


The standard of musical excellence in Australia is only going north. This was the strongest of 17 editions of Freedman Jazz, the annual concert partly determining the winner of the $20,000 Freedman Jazz Fellowship. Standing out was not just the musicianship, but the artistry: the ideas and creativity in play. Sydney pianist Novak Manojlovic opened the concert, and ended up a worthy winner.

HEKKA, Manojlovic’s band with bassist Jacques Emery and drummer Tully Ryan, was thrillingly distinctive, aided no end by the leader’s compositions. Although others have traversed related musical territory (the Bad Plus, Esbjorn Svensson Trio, Phronesis, Triosk), and one can hear faint echoes of Thelonious Monk and Sun Ra in Manojlovic’s own playing, this trio’s improvising language is all its own. While Emery acted as a minimalist pivot, the pianist used electronics to frost the band’s sound, and Ryan’s jagged drumming made the undercurrent of tension electric.

Novak Manojlovic. Photos: Antony Browell.

At one point Manojlovic incorporated a spoken-word loop of a female voice repeating, “I was trying to slow down; make it all last”. I felt like that: wanting time to take in the sheer eccentricity of the compositional, textural, melodic and rhythmic ideas, which piled surprise upon surprise, as though one had stumbled into a benign musical minefield.

London-based Tasmanian singer Elly Hoyt came very close to matching this standard. The words (sung or spoken) to her opening suite condemned the misery suffered by asylum seekers in Australia’s offshore camps, while her wordless improvising ranged from soaring operatic ethereality to roaring earthiness. She was less compelling when settling for prettiness, although even then the inspired combination of Matt McMahon (piano), Phil Stack (bass) and James Waples (drums) shook off any creeping complacency.

The final contender was Sydney pianist/composer Harry Sutherland, who, like Manojlovic, had Ryan on drums and used electronics, but Sutherland’s music wore its heart more overtly on its sleeve, partly thanks to Tom Avgenicos’s slicing, electronically-treated trumpet.

Manojlovic will use his Fellowship to write new music, tour his trio, and collaborate with projection artists.