Sydney Con International Jazz Festival

Sydney Conservatorium, Jun 4


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Tigran Hamasyan. Photo: Anthony Browell.

Pianist Tigran Hamasyan has such a light touch at it is as if a spirit is playing rather than a corporeal presence; one wary of imposing itself upon silence. Indeed much of this solo concert was so airy that were it a sculpture it wouldn’t even cast a shadow.

Only 29, Hamasyan proved a worthy headliner for the inaugural Sydney Con International Jazz Festival, having already sparked international interest with his distinctive array of influences, including jazz, his native Armenia’s folk, pop/rock, eighteenth century classicism and French Impressionism.

He began with New Baroque 2, his wordless vocal lines compounding the ascetic aesthetic. New Baroque 1 was like a graceful dance, on to the straight grain of which his improvising engraved knottier harmonies. Revolving was among several pieces where his un-miked vocal percussion sounded like the world’s softest cajon player was performing perfect unisons with the piano.

Even on the more vigorous Markos and Markos or the 21-minute Nairian Odyssey Hamasyan eschewed grand gestures, whether musical or emotional. This was art devoid of angst or anger, and he will leave the world having boosted its beauty quantum. His encore was a playful dissection of Someday My Prince Will Come.

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Phil Slater Quintet. Photo: Aaron Blakey.

If Hamasyan reminded one of The Tempest’s Ariel, New York drummer/composer Jim Black’s collaboration with saxophonist Julien Wilson, guitarist Carl Dewhurst and bassist Chris Hale was closer to Caliban. This was the sound of flesh, blood, bones, and sinews. It also reflected a keen intellect, and could be fiendishly challenging. Of course Wilson, Dewhurst and Hale rose to the challenge, although further rehearsal may have made the performance less edgy. But then the music itself was edgy, given Black’s love of jagged – sometimes brutal – odd-time rhythms. These were often surmounted by anthemic melodies that played to the strengths of Wilson’s sprawling tenor, while Dewhurst deployed thrillingly unexpected abstractions.

The Phil Slater Quintet played an enthralling hour-long piece, Cordeaux, with no amplification even on Brett Hirst’s bass. Rather than constraining the dynamics this enhanced them, and highlighted the warmth of the sounds made by Slater’s trumpet, Matt Keegan’s tenor, Matt McMahon’s piano, Hirst’s bass and Simon Barker’s drums. Slater’s conception prioritised the gradual building of often wistful moods over inflicting quick shots of climactic excitement, and made for the most moving of the three concerts.