We get the lowdown on Stonnington Jazz Festival from Artistic Director, Chelsea Wilson

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We get the lowdown on Stonnington Jazz Festival from Artistic Director, Chelsea Wilson

Words by Zachary Snowdon Smith

Jazz has always evolved through crossing boundaries. This year, Stonnington Jazz Festival is tossing a firecracker into the Melbourne scene with an innovative new program.

“I really wanted to explore intersections of jazz with other kinds of artistic mediums,” says Chelsea Wilson, the festival’s artistic director. “What happens when you put spoken word with jazz? What happens when you put film with jazz?”

Answering this question is Adelaide eight-piece the Shaolin Afronauts, who will perform a live jazz score for George Miller’s 1985 film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

“Evoking an emotional connection with a landscape is something all great film scores are able to do,” says Afronauts bassist Ross McHenry. “The thing about the Mad Max films that is so interesting is that they really do hero this uniquely Australian landscape, framing the vast expanse in this slightly off-putting yet endearing way.”

The Shaolin Afronauts, who live-scored the first two Mad Max films at previous festivals, were tasked with manually removing the original score from the film’s soundtrack, while leaving dialogue and sound effects intact. Another challenge was writing a score with room for improvisation and on-the-fly invention, while also hitting the necessary beats for the film.

“No matter how weird or out-there it gets with Shaolin Afronauts, it’s always underpinned by a groove,” says McHenry. “That groove and strong rhythmic context are things that all people, irrespective of background, do understand inherently. You can do pretty much anything on top of that, and people will go with you so long as they can dance to it.”

Another mashup sure to turn heads comes from jazz collective The Surface Project. In Björk: Reinterpreted, The Surface Project will reinvent the works of the Icelandic pop regent in their own energetic and highly textured mode.

“To me, so much about Björk is totally jazz,” says Wilson. “She continues to push boundaries, she collaborates with different artists and is a real improviser and experimenter. A lot of that really mirrors the jazz sensibility.”

But Björk: Reinterpreted isn’t exactly a tribute show, says music director Claire Cross. The group doesn’t aim to recreate Björk’s recordings, but to pay tribute to her continual self-reinvention by turning her lyrics and melodies into something new.

“If you like live music and you want to come experience something a little bit different, this is a great opportunity,” says Cross. “Live music always brings out something special that you can’t experience listening on iTunes. Come and experience something with us and share in the experiment.”

The Surface Project will be joined for Björk: Reinterpreted by guests including Nkechi Anele of Saskwatch and electronic artist Tom Barton.

Stonnington isn’t just for listeners this year – musicians looking to upskill can stop by business, recording and performance workshops, including a keynote presentation by Don Lucoff. As national director of publicity for MCA Records, Lucoff has worked with artists including B.B. King, Bill Evans and Mel Tormé.

“I’m really passionate about how strong the talent is in Australia, considering how isolated we are from the rest of the world,” says Wilson. “I asked, how can we use this festival as a way to generate some deeper conversations and upskill our artists so they can continue to build their profiles?”

The Stonnington program includes a who’s who of the local scene, featuring artists like James Morrison, Steve Sedergreen, Gianni Marinucci and saxophonist Paul Williamson. Andrea Keller and Tim Wilson, two of Australia’s best-known jazz composers, will appear as a duo. They’ll perform selections from Consider This, their 2017 Bell Award-winning album, in an intimate concert at the Chapel Theatre.

“There’s endless possibilities in the music,” says Keller. “With a duo, you’ve got a companion to bounce ideas off and share musical thoughts with, but, because there’s only two of you, it’s incredibly open. Even if the music is scripted in some ways, it can go into new territory.”

Stonnington differentiates itself from Melbourne International Jazz Festival with a stronger focus on Australian artists, but there are still splashes of international colour to be found in the largely local program. Here and Now gathers artists from Papua New Guinea, India and Japan, as well as Australia, to reinterpret Duke Ellington’s The Far East Suite, an album reflecting Ellington’s impressions of his 1963 Beirut-to-Bangalore tour.

“We have a traditional jazz big band that’s reinterpreting The Far East Suite from start to finish, but with a Melbourne twist,” says Wilson. “It’s a uniquely Australian concept that marries the African American tradition of jazz with contemporary artists.”

Joining the lineup for Here And Now is Amadou Suso, a native of The Gambia, an often-overlooked West African nation roughly the size of the Melbourne Metro Area. Suso specialises in the kora, an instrument similar to both the banjo and the harp. Amadou Suso follows in the tradition of Foday Musa Suso, the kora player who appears on Herbie Hancock’s 1984 album Sound-System.

“The music I play is unique,” says Amadou Suso. “It’s a different vibe to what Australian music is. I’m looking forward to learning from all the people and to share my talent with them.”

The festival will also include dining events, kids’ activities, a poetry slam and a screening of the landmark 1990 Aussie jazz flick Beyond El Rocco.

“Some people are kind of scared of the word ‘jazz,’” says Wilson. “People think that elevator music is jazz, so they say, ‘I don’t like elevator music, so I don’t like jazz.’ People think, ‘I don’t like saxophones, so I don’t like jazz.’ There are so many different things going on in jazz that I hope people will take a gamble, come along, and check it out.”