“Jazz” according to acclaimed Sydney pianist Mike Nock, “is the most fun you can have with your clothes on”.
Tucked away in fertile wine country between the gushing Ovens and King rivers of north east Victoria lies the sleepy town of Wangaratta. A land of steep riverbanks, ancient gums, flood ponds and billabongs, the town is quaint and quintessentially Australian. Yet every spring, for one long weekend, Wangaratta is descended upon by the crème de la crème of the Australian and international jazz scenes.
Wangaratta is all about jazz, and exceptional jazz at that. Forty local and overseas jazz acts, a separate blues marquee with a further ten acts and the exceptional hospitality of locals and volunteers make for a weekend of music like no other.
This is my first time at the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues and one of the main draw cards for me is the National Jazz Awards, which this year is open to vocalists.
Sitting under the Wangaratta sun, petite French jazz singer Cyrille Aimée tells me of her epiphany. It was way back when she was just starting to learn about jazz. “I learnt that you have to stop thinking and let your heart go,” she says.
Growing up in guitarist Django Reinhardt’s town in Samois, France, Aimée used to sneak out her bedroom window at night to meet her gypsy friends. They taught her their music and she taught them how to read.
“The gypsies were the ones that made me want to do music,” she says. “But before I even got into music I was already obsessed with them.”
This is Aimée’s first time in Australia. She left her tiny town in France to move to New York, and then went on to win the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival in 2007 and the first edition of the Sarah Vaughan Vocal Competition two months ago.
She says she finds inspiration in hot gypsy jazz, Latin groove, salsa, merengue and the contemporary jazz of the New York club scene. As well as her native French, she speaks English and Spanish, and sings in all three.
When Aimée improvises she closes her eyes- a habit she assures me that she is working on. Yet she finds herself completely lost in the music.
“When I improvise, I’m naked,” she says frankly. “I don’t want to see people while they’re looking at me naked. But now that I realise I’m telling stories, I’m starting to open them.”
It may be Aimée’s first time at Wangaratta but for many it is a homecoming.
Michelle Nicolle won the very first vocal edition of the National Jazz Awards in 1998 and this year is judging the awards alongside singer Vince Jones and pianist Nock.
So what is Nicolle looking for in a winner? “Connection,” she says without hesitation. “I want the winner to connect with the audience, connect with me and connect with the band. I’m really after someone who is genuine.”
Semi finalist Kristin Berardi is also back, having lost out to Elana Stone seven years ago.
Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and “those kinda dudes” are not the first names you’d expect jazzer Kristin Berardi to rattle off as her music icons. But alongside Sarah and Ella, she does.
Berardi, who started off as a classical musician, admits she didn’t really “get” jazz in the beginning. Growing up in the tiny town of Koumalain north Queensland she thought jazz was “for old people”.
Reflecting on her triumph at the Montreux International Jazz Festival six years ago, Berardi is still wonderstruck. Her enduring memory of Montreux is of it being “like a fairytale”. As a young jazz singer, she had moved fromBrisbanetoSydneyand “kind of wasn’t getting anywhere”.
And then she won Montreux. Since her triumphant return, Berardi has joined the ranks ofAustralia’s most celebrated jazz vocalists.
She approaches improvisation both intellectually and instinctively. Her vocal control is impeccable, and when she improvises, she seems to spin and weave each note out of pure gold between her fingertips.
But the most important thing 31-year-old Berardi has learnt about jazz is “to be yourself”.
“I’ve finally found a way of expressing myself,” she says.
One man who will be listening very intently is judge Mike Nock.
Nock tells me a breathtaking story of working with Dionne Warwick. He was chosen, without any rehearsal, to accompany the singer at a momentous orchestral performance at the Lincoln Centre.
“It was a real big deal,” he tells me. “On the morning of the gig the conductor was in a fight so they had to fly Burt Bacharach in at the last minute.
“But the first chart was not his. It was a piece called ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’. So Burt’s doing this thing and something went wrong. And it just kept getting wronger and wronger. Total cacophony.”:
The orchestra was in an entirely different key to the rhythm section.
“I thought she was going to run off the stage in tears,” says Nock. “There was this pregnant pause, then she went into the next song a cappella.”
Warwickdid not fire Nock. In fact, she offered to double his pay if he opened all her shows.
“But I was on a different mission,” says Nock. “I’d already bought my Steinway Grand and just wanted to be in New York and play it all the time.”
The 72-year-old is an interesting amalgam of his experiences. He speaks in a curious mix of accents, at times sounding Australian, others American and occasionally his native Kiwi. To Nock there are only two kinds of music: good and bad.
“Music is an emotional language,” he says.
“You want to get the essence of what you’re feeling without any artifice. My father died when I was quite young. I was brought up in the Catholic religion and I felt let down. I thought God had forsaken me. So I turned my religious feelings to jazz and it became my calling. It still is. It can really touch the core of what it means to be human.
“You can say things with music that you can’t always say with words. Listen intently until it becomes your language. I believe music is my language now. I have for a long time.”
I have been listening intently, and it is Aimée who impresses me most at Wangaratta. She sings with a mesmerising ease, grace and infectious sense of joy.
In addition to being a headline act at Wangaratta, Aimée was also one of the ten semi finalists in the National Jazz Awards; winning would have been the third major accolade for the 28-year-old. But she is not awarded a place in the final, a decision that leaves festival director Adrian Jackson “a bit surprised”.
“I thought she sang beautifully throughout the weekend. But it is up to the judges to make their choices as they see it. I didn’t envy them that job,”Jacksontells me.
However he does consider Berardi, who takes home first prize, “a very worthy winner”.
“I suspect most people might have had her pegged as a favourite going into the festival,” he says.
Talking with Berardi after the awards, she says she is overwhelmed. In addition to the $10,000 prize, a recording session for ABC Jazztrack and a coveted spot in next year’s Stonnington Jazz Festival, Berardi hopes that winning will lead to more gigs and tours around the country.
“It was a very inspiring weekend and I’m very thankful,” she says.
As I leave, my most indelible memory is of the finest jazz musicians from Australia and the world converging beneath the twisted gums and blue velvet of the Wangaratta sky.