Year in Review: 2016

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Esperanza Spalding. Fascinating music, shame about the sound. Photo: Prudence Upton.

What were they thinking?

Technologically diabolical live sound should be a thing of the past, like overheating cars. So to encounter this phenomenon plaguing five high-profile concerts in five different rooms in 2016 was disgraceful. The worst offender was the delightful Esperanza Spaulding’s Emily’s D+Evolution in the Joan Sutherland Theatre. Despite Spaulding’s lyrics being pivotal barely a word was intelligible. How to shoot a show in the foot in one easy lesson. Over in the Concert Hall the charismatic Goran Bregovic’s Wedding and Funeral Orchestra shrank from 37 members in 2008 to nine this year, and yet the previously flawless sound was now atrocious. Sampled bass and drum tracks were pushed to distortion levels, miring the band and obliterating Bregovic’s singing.

Punishing volume may have its place in heavy metal, but what it had to do with saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s jazz-funk at the Metro or the r&b of Jackie Orszaczky’s bandmates paying tribute to their late leader at the Basement was mystifying. Rather than volume the problem with the brilliant Stu Hunter’s The Migration at City Recital Hall was muddiness, so Katie Noonan’s voice was submerged in aural sludge.

Glancing sideways at musical theatre, Aladdin may be as spectacular as any musical ever staged, yet it is fleshed out with songs that should never have survived the workshop phase. Did no one know the difference between good and bad?


Surprise Packet

Singers dominated, here. Jen Shyu showed just how complete and seamless the interrelationship between theatre, dance and music could be, as she drew on assorted traditions of East Asia in a memorable collaboration with drummer Simon Barker. Darren Percival was both a surprising and inspired choice as the surrogate Jackie Orszaczky in the aforementioned Basement concert: relaxed, engaging and able to rise to powerhouse performances when things became dangerously funky.

Will Percival still be this good at 89? Amazingly Tony Bennett is. On his The Silver Lining album with pianist Bill Charlap he often sounds much as he did 50 years ago: effortless phrasing, bronze tone and utter conviction.

Other recorded surprises included Return, an album of solo piano from the world’s leading jazz drummer, Jack DeJohnette, and World Music, on which oud virtuoso Joseph Tawadros personally played 52 instruments to stunning effect.

The strangest juxtaposition of music in one night came at the Factory Theatre. I went from the throat-singing of the Jerry Cans (from Canada’s Arctic Circle) to the Residents’ rampant surrealism, and then the bizarrely wide-ranging music (try Indian classical to klezmer!) of Jaron Freeman-Fox and the Opposite of Everything. A weirdly multifarious sonic dream.


Courting controversy

It was somehow reassuring to hear people singing provocative or rebellious lyrics in a year when Dylan received the Nobel Literature Prize. In concert Abigail Washburn offered a searing a cappella reading of Come All Ye Coalminers, a socialist anthem from the Great Depression. On record Alesa Lajana’s Frontier Lullaby was a retort to those shrill history-deniers who sweep away inconvenient truths about atrocities in Australian black/white relations as a “black armband view of history”, and Eleanor McEvoy’s Deliver Me From What You Do was a savage indictment of Catholic Church hypocrisy.

Wayne Shorter Quartet
Wayne Shorter’s brilliant quartet. Photo: Daniel Bond.

Perhaps the blood and nudity in the Australian Art Quartet’s Butt Naked Salon might have once been controversial, but they were nothing compared with the politicians turning blind eyes to our inherently violent culture, instead blaming alcohol and further strangling live music.


Shining stars

The Wayne Shorter Quartet’s Concert Hall performance was easily the year’s best. Shorter is not only jazz’s most important living composer, he is a peerless band-leader, creating environments in which pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade can excel. More than solos this was about shifting foregrounds, with Shorter’s tenor saxophone bleak and eerily beautiful, and his soprano like tracer fire racing across the night sky.

Of all the stylistic mergers that are a hallmark of contemporary music, few sound as completely natural – almost inevitable – as singer Diego El Cigala’s fusion of flamenco with Latin American idioms. Here were rearing emotions, completely unselfconscious and uncontrived, riding on a svelte band centred on guitarist Diego Del Morao.

In theatre Sport For Jove’s production of Antigone continues to sear in the memory.