Michelle Nicolle OctetLeft - Michelle Nicolle

The 2008 Melbourne International Jazz Festival, which finished last Sunday, provided audiences with the opportunity of savouring some wonderful overseas talent such as Kurt Elling, Tomasz Stanko and Cindy Blackman, but that wasn't all. There was also a feast of local talent: Lost and Found (Jamie Oehlers, Paul Grabowsky and Dave Beck) together with the Michelle Nicolle Octet showed yet again that Melbourne has a wealth of talented jazz musicians.

These wonderful musicians shared the stage at The Palms at Crown for a concert last weekend.  First up was Lost and Found: Oehlers (saxophone), Grabowsky (piano) and Beck (drums) and they treated their audience to over an hour of inventive, non-stop improvisation; an exhilarating and exhausting emotional ride. Each of these musicians is well know in their own right, and as Lost and Found, and they certainly didn't disappoint. They were followed by The Michelle Nicolle Octet with improvisation of a different kind, this time the focus was on the voice.

Michelle Nicolle is Melbourne's Queen of Scat with a voice that can reach the high and the low, not to mention the in-between. It's a voice full of the melody, rhythm and playfulness that is jazz. The wonderful nonsense syllables that are scat release the voice from the lyrics freeing it up to improvise like any other instrument when played by a talented musician. Nicolle is an accomplished singer, composer and arranger with an ability to make every song very much her own.

The Michelle Nicolle Quartet is well known locally, nationally and internationally and has won a number of awards including the 1998 National Jazz Award. The Octet, with its inclusion of tuba, trumpet and flugelhorn, was a new departure developed especially for  this year's Melbourne International Jazz Festival. The brass instruments added a different dimension and emotional resonance to the pieces in which they featured such as Misterioso.

In the glitzy surroundings of The Palms at Crown, with laser lighting creating an almost surreal mood, Nicolle and her Octet - Ronny Ferella (drums) Geoff Hughes (guitar) Tom Lee (base), Dan Jordan (tuba), Gianni Marinucci (trumpet/flugelhorn) and Greg Spence (trumpet) - treated the audience to over an hour of jazz songs, some standards, some special arrangements by Nicolle and still others her own composition. It was in the delivery of her own songs that the scatting came to the fore. Nicolle claims to be not very good with lyrics, hence her pieces Boom Badada Summer and Whatever the... The audience was also treated to her distinctive interpretation of such songs as Tad Damarin's If You Could See Me Now, which opened the performance, Poor Butterfly
(made famous by Sarah Vaughan) and a particular highlight for me, Lou Reed's Perfect Day.

While I did really enjoy the added dimension brought by the introduction of brass, I couldn't help but feel that the Octet didn't gel as a whole quite as well as it might.  Nicolle's between song banter was also disappointing, coming across as simplistic and naïve, in total contrast to the confidence and control she displayed when singing.  Perhaps she was a little overawed by the size of the venue, if so I empathise. Whilst I really appreciated the clear view I had of the musicians (I was sitting 2/3 of the way back in a raised tier) and the fact that a Festival needs a larger venue in order to get a good financial return, for me at least, jazz is best experienced in a smaller, more intimate venue where there can be a greater sense of the playful and knowing three-way exchange between musicians and audience that is integral to the form. That said, I'm a definite fan of Michelle Nicolle, not to mention the other three - Oehlers, Grabowsky and Beck!

You don't have to wait till next year's Melbourne International Jazz Festival to see these wonderful performers, as they each have gigs coming up. Check out Bennett's Lane and other jazz venues around the city for your opportunity to enjoy these wonderful musicians up close and personal.

2008 Melbourne International Jazz Festival
Double Bill:
Lost and Found: Oehlers, Grabowsky and Beck & Michelle Nicolle Octet

Venue: The Palms At Crown
Date/Time: 8:00pm Friday 2 May 2008
Price: Regular $55.00, Concession $50.00
More information: www.melbournejazz.com

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