My six-hour journey to this year’s Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues is punctuated only by roadkill and the land itself, burnished and charred by bushfire. The trees lie out eerily by the roadside, black and skeletal, topped by amber leaves.
After the opening night cocktail party, I head to the vast Pinsent Hotel, where it seems everyone in town is packed in listening to old-school New Orleans-style big band The Pelicans. At night, Wangaratta is the kind of place where the stars stretch infinitely. The heady smell of burning wood drifts down the main road and the silhouettes of silver gums – painfully contorted into giant, arthritic knots – shape the skyline.
The piano seems to be the instrument of choice at Wangaratta this year with American pianists Gerald Clayton and Barney McAll headlining alongside Belgian pianist Jef Neve. Other international guests include the Netherland’s Eric Vloeimans’ Gatecrash, Norway’s Froy Aagre Electric and the United States’ truly electric Paul Bollenback Trio. The annual National Jazz Awards are on again and this year’s instrument is the piano.
Elder Aussie statesman Geoff Bull and his host of vibrant young musicians, The Finer Cuts, are performing the next morning at the Gateway Hotel. The stellar line-up, featuring Harry Sutherland on piano, Sam Dobson on bass, Ben Panucci on guitar and banjo, Justin Fermino on C-melody sax and clarinet and Grant Arthur on trombone, blow the dust off traditional twenties tunes with drive and dynamism.
Jazz veteran Mike Nock and I are staying at the same hotel and late on Saturday afternoon we meet downstairs in the bar. Nock fixes me with his steely blue-eyed gaze over the rim of his glass and tells me that the most important thing he has ever learned about jazz is to be honest.
“Play from your heart. I’ve always done that, but it just keeps getting reaffirmed,” he says.
“As I get older, it’s hard not to be inspired by everything. The main thing about composition is what you do with what you’ve got. Anything can inspire you, you’ve just got make something beautiful out of it. Or something ugly out of it. Just try to make it interesting.”
And while his relationship with music has changed dramatically over the years, Nock assures me that the essence of the music stays the same.
“It’s about touching people. If you can do that, you’re really doing something.”
Nock’s performance the following afternoon with saxophonist Julien Wilson and guitarist Stephen Magnusson is fresh and arresting, comprising a number of bold new originals penned by the inimitable talent that is Nock himself.
Speaking with drummer John Morrison at Wangaratta last year, I recall him telling me that playing is not all about style. Rather, he considers style to be “more a fringe element of who you are as an artist”.
This year Morrison is back at Wangaratta with his All-Stars band, fronted by wife Jacki Cooper on vocals.
Over lunch, Cooper is giving me an education in scat singing.
“Be an instrument- don’t imitate an instrument. Don’t make nonsense words, make articulations,” she says.
“The legend behind where scat was developed was when Louis Armstrong’s music fell off the stand and he couldn’t remember the lyrics. He had to continue the song so he just scatted the words, and because he was a horn player the articulations he used would have been very horn-like. And that’s where it started,” explains Cooper.
The standard at the National Jazz Awards is formidable this year, with a horde of young Australian pianists battling it out for the prestigious first prize. But it is 24-year-old Brisbane pianist Joseph O’Connor who most impresses the panel and takes home the $10,000 prize money.
The first time I meet renowned jazz vocalist Chris McNulty is at the opening night cocktail party, where I end up on the same table with her and her band.
The next afternoon she is making us tea in her hotel room.
“I’ve had to do everything you could imagine to survive,” McNulty tells me as we wait for the kettle to boil.
Originally from Melbourne, McNulty has been on the road since she was 17. Now 60, she lives and works in the United States. It is her first year at Wangaratta and she and her band have flown all the way from New York to be here.
Of the city she has called home for 15 yeas, McNulty says: “It’s one of those stories where you’re halfway between climbing a mountain or digging a hole. It’s a tough city for a singer. It’s just like what Frank said – if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere. It’s a hard town, New York.”
Sitting by the window in her hotel room strewn with performance dresses, McNulty talks with unrelenting passion about her lifetime commitment to music, art and education.
“When I was finding my voice I really dug in hard to the great classic jazz singers of the day. Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McCrae, of course Billie Holiday, Ella, Anita O’Day, a lot of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.”
These days McNulty has well and truly found her own voice.
“It’s a hugely important thing for me to own a song from the first note to the last,” she tells me.
Towards the end of our chat, McNulty describes the elusive art of drawing people in and taking them away from the everyday – from the mundane – and lifting them up to some place.
“The story may speak to them about their loss or their sorrow or their sadness, or it may speak to them about some joyful, jubilant part of their life. You want to affect people,” she says.
“You want to leave them feeling something they didn’t feel before.”
And her performance that night with longtime friend and collaborator Paul Grabowsky on piano does just that. A sense of world-weariness resonates through every word she sings, and a definite standout is her achingly beautiful rendition of the Bacharach song “One Less Bell to Answer”. For me, McNulty’s two performances over the weekend are the most memorable.
This year I notice something I don’t recall from last year. Hanging from the trees that line the main street are countless strings of brightly coloured envelopes. Opening one, I was struck by the words before me. A quote from Ella Fitzgerald: Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong. And for me, that is Wangaratta: inspiration and a universal, unwavering love for music.