The Studio, July 20
Four more diverse finalists are hard to imagine. MC Tim Richie referred to the judges’ difficulty in comparing apples with oranges, but this was more like comparing apples with fire-engines, churches and wombats. In the event the judges awarded the $15,000 Music Trust Freedman Jazz Fellowship and three days of ABC studio time to Miami-based pianist Tal Cohen.
With saxophonist Jamie Oehlers, bassist Cameron Undy and drummer Tim Firth Cohen certainly stuck closest to a conventional jazz aesthetic, even though his compositional ideas were heavily influenced by traditional Jewish music. He injected a gripping piano solo into a somewhat deconstructed version of Miles Davis’s Nardis, shaped a stretch of solo piano out of gorgeous, pearl-like notes in his first original composition, and unleashed a penchant for drama and climax in the second.
Perhaps Cohen’s planned use of the $15,000 to forge US/Australian collaborations won the day over two quite extraordinary performances, the first from multiple finalist Gian Slater. The singer was partnered by pianist Barney McAll and drummer Simon Barker, who were like designers creating marvellously improbable settings on which she staged her songs. If a sameness of mood and vocal approach may have prevailed without them, with them she generated an enthralling sense of mystery.
The other was saxophonist Peter Farrar’s band the Prophets, who instantly differentiated themselves by performing in giant, primitive-art, alien-like masks. Their opening piece, when Farrar, Laura Altman and Dale Gorfinkel had plastic bottles muting their saxophones against the polyrhythms of drummers James Waples and Finn Ryan, was marginally less successful. But once Farrar unleashed the extraordinary vibrancy of his alto saxophone sound and melodic ideas this became a truly thrilling performance, in which Ethiopian influences, rampant theatricality, free improvisation and Altman’s engaging singing collided.
The fourth contender was saxophonist Mike Rivett, whose music had atmospheric electronics, funky rhythms, brawny tenor saxophone and a keen sense of space swirling together. With him were Undy, Waples and percussionist Georgio Rojas.