What better way to launch 10 days and nights of jazz than with Australia's best jazz talent, lounging on stage, instruments and wine glasses close at hand?
We are joined by Vince Jones, a man whose voice seems completely at odds with his very white hair. Never has a man his age sounded so sexy in my ears. This man is an Australian jazz legend – not that his being Australian has much to do with it. He sounds like he came straight out of a dark, misty New Orleans club in the 50s. His voice is wonderful – husky, versatile, strong. It goes anywhere he wants it to. I most love how he introduces his songs by speaking with a light musical backing as he starts to hum the tune. With Vince Jones, the music doesn't stop. In his first set he recreates "Just In Time" then a Cole Porter beauty, beginning our evening gently. His relaxed stage presence permeates his performance.
The clever staging of the show creates a strong club feel, a space that could exist anywhere in time over the past century (if you ignore the bar heater and other little modern necessities). This perfectly hosts the range of music we're given over the night, from old masters to modern ones, from Cole Porter to tunes recently penned by the Elixir trio.
When Vince has opened the night, he ushers Katie Noonan up from the couch, then retreats to his seat by the onstage bar. Katie's first words are "Wow. I'm having a really nice time." As were we, but she takes it to another level. Katie's voice is just amazing. It's been said before, it will be said again. She leaves you stunned with its purity and clarity, and her amazing control of her high register. She gives us Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life", which feels perfect at this moment in the show.
The tenor sax, played by Zac Hurren, takes the stage. It's a delight to see this instrument feature throughout the night as the only consistent woodwind presence. Together with his wife Katie they bring us an Elixir tune, introducing a folksier feel to the evening. With the trio completed by the guitar, Elixir's music is simple beauty. Katie's voice works wonderfully with the guitar and the sax, and mostly it is just two featuring at any time, letting us focus on the wonderful control each musician has over their instrument.
Vince returns to the focus with a song from My Fair Lady, and "One of the most sexist ballads ever – but you forgive it, because it's music." We could probably also forgive Vince anything, as long as he sings it. His version of "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" is more than forgivable.
And then Kristin Berardi leaves the couch, and the show I thought couldn't get better soon does. Kristin tells the story of how Vince got her into jazz. In highschool, she told her music teacher "I don't think I like jazz." Her wise teacher gave her some Vince Jones to listen to, and her response foretold wonderful things to come: "If this is jazz, I like jazz!" This beautiful woman has gone on to win the 2009 National Jazz Award, titling her the best jazz singer in the world – but only for a year, as she points out when Katie mentions the award.
Kristin brings us the first bit of beat as well as the first scat of the night, and lifts the whole show's energy. Then Katie joins Kristin on stage, and we hear about the first time Kristin saw Katie perform. As a fresher in O-week at the Queensland Con, Kristin was terrified by Katie's talent, thinking she could never aspire to it; "Well, now we're friends. Life is sometimes great!"
For me, their duet is the highlight of the night. Their voices complement each other perfectly and their energy is also matched to create something whole, seamless and wonderful.
Kristin is oddly uncomfortable when she's not singing, and doesn't have Katie's strong self-assurance and on-stage comfort. Yet when she starts to sing, she's instantly in her zone. She sings with her whole body, feeling the music, playing it with her torso, arms, legs, face, and it all exits through her voice. Mmmm what a voice! She makes a wonderful contrast to Katie's soaring heights, as hers is lower, huskier and more traditionally jazzy, with cool depths hiding just under the surface.
Katie's stage presence is something to be marvelled at. She dances and moves with such confidence, that somehow lets her melt into the background when she wants to, leaving the focus on a musician. Their duet rounds out the first act, leaving me not a little heartbroken.
The second act showcases more of each of these three vocalists and their wonderful bands. We see more of Vince, The Showman, weaving his funny stories into his music. The musicians really shine in this act with the night's MD Matt McMahon on the piano, Ben Waples on the delicious double bass and Simon Barker on drums, the three comprising the Vince Jones band. That's not to forget Steven Magnusson, Australia's award winning jazz guitarist, as the third in the Elixir trio.
This really is an exceptional jazz gala, showcasing Australia's best jazz musicians as well as the lasting power of jazz itself. The three generations of jazz singers on stage create a fascinating display of this genre, proving its timeless ability to speak across the decades.
2012 Melbourne International Jazz Festival
The Way You Look Tonight
Venue: The Palais Theatre
Date: Friday 1 June, 8pm - 10:30pm
Tickets: $69 – $49