Aaron Choulai takes out the 2014 Freedman Fellowship.

Studio, Sydney Opera House

August 20, 2014

Having submitted an audition recording, preferably indicative of a developing project that would be brought to fulfillment should he or she win the coveted Freedman Fellowship, and being subjected to interviews by the judges, the four finalists in this very special annual event finally take part in their live auditions at the Sydney Opera House studio. Each contestant recruits his or her own band for the occasion. This is both a concert and a contest on the night. Well, so are all such events, but the spirit of fellowship that makes all the players fellows whether they officially become so or not is always inspiring. Also, in the many times I have attended this night (once as a judge) the standard has been remarkable, from the viewpoints of execution, interpretation and creativity. Many of the chosen vehicles are original compositions, and of course the improvisations and improvisatory developments are often brilliant.

Small wonder. The applicants have all been invited by a panel of outstanding veterans.

So eclectic can these concerts be that the only jazz aspects in some ensemble offerings are inspiraton and attitude toward the material. For all that, I have rarely heard anything that would conceivably exist without an existing spectrum of jazz endeavour – which is much wider than many are aware. It should be noted that the acoustics in this venue are practically ideal, accomodating power (sometimes galvanic) and intimacy.

After a dramatic introduction in which Melbourne drummer Joseph Talia created a pattern of deep, dark, widely-spaced thuds beneath contestant Aaron Chuolai’s piano cadenza, the two moved into a luminous interpretation of singer-songwriter James Blake’s Wilhelm’s Scream. This luminosity was partly due to the sound elicited by Choulai, partly by the glittering, chiming patterns with which he expounded on the melody. The slow, dramatic tempo was not abandoned until a free section, replete with dissonant clusters rather than chords, cymbal smashes and startling bangs. That this was accepted enthusiastically was due to it being dynamically very exciting and also because it arose from a stream of development and interaction in which drums and piano grew more lyrical the busier the textures they produced. This level was sustained throughout the performance, which culminated in a version of the old country and western hit The Tennessee Waltz (I first heard it sung by the very underrated Pattie Page). A section of fairly abstract development set up the entrance of this lovely tune so cunningly that the familiar, softly played first phrases took the beat away. As you probably know now the Papua-born Choulai is this year’s fellow. And a jolly good one is to understate it. I doubt that anyone was surprised.

Nor would I have been surprised if the following contestant had won. Trombonist Shannon Barnett led a jazz trio (augmented by piano on one track) of orthodox but remarkable excellence. Barnett’s compact, stacatto patterns – replete with beautifully controlled asides in which a note would be barely touched, like an afterthought – were opened out with powerful cries and exclamations, in which none of her superb tone was sacrificed for volume, yet the power seemed to shift everything before her backward.

Next, vocalist Gian Slater, sang originals with husband Chris Hale (last year’s Freedman Fellow) on acoustic bass guitar, brother Nathan Slater on guitar and guests Matt McMahon, piano and drummer Simon Barker. Slater produced some very different and intriguing sounds during episodes which invested scat singing with a contemporary sensibility. Lines like, “I am a child in the world; lost in its mazes,” are pretty damn nice on paper, but powerful and hypnotic when she sang them.

Final contestant Matthew Sheens is a brilliant pianist. Perhaps because illness had begun by that stage of the night to limit my capacity to absorb much more, and perhaps because his offering was on the surface more tonally orthodox than I had expected, my response was a little flat. Nevertheless beneath the orthodox textures there was much complexity and invention. I certainly hope to hear more of this highly accomplished player soon.