Freedman Jazz

The Studio, August 20 

Choulai res
Aaron Choulai. Photo: Karen Steains.

The finalists for the 12th edition of the $15,000 Freedman Fellowship – pianists Aaron Choulai and Matthew Sheens, trombonist Shannon Barnett and singer Gian Slater – reinforced just how much musical real estate lies beneath the jazz umbrella.

The winner was Choulai, whose naturally soulful sense of rhythm and harmony could seem familiar enough. What sets him apart is his love of space, even when articulating faster tempos, and this was emphasised by playing in a duo format with drummer Joe Talia. Both players disguised grooves, left holes and danced between playing with (mostly) exceptional precision and interacting quite freely. The resultant music had an unusually ritualistic dimension; a quality that, remarkably, was equally evident whether the material was Thelonious Monk’s Let’s Cool One or Tennessee Waltz! Now based in Japan, Choulai will use the prize money to build a recording studio and document his work more routinely.

Singer Gian Slater, a three-time finalist, laid a strong claim to winning with a commendable touring project and a performance that at times was the most mesmerising. The interesting aspect of Slater’s work is the age-old tug-of-war between innocence and experience. On one side lay her airy, girlish voice and naive melodies, and on the other and her sophisticated control, improvising skills and accompaniment. The latter was supplied by Nathan Slater’s flamenco-flavoured guitar, Christopher Hale’s acoustic bass guitar, Matt McMahon’s piano and Simon Barker’s drums.

While Barnett cast the net for material as far and wide as from Harold Arlen to Neil Finn, her trombone playing came from the central current of jazz, with burnished tone, but no conceptual innovation. In fact she was at her most intriguing and engaging when she sang, rendering I Got A Right To Sing The Blues in a charmingly unaffected voice, not unlike Billie Holiday’s.

Sheens proved an accomplished pianist and interesting composer who created somewhat cold, calculating music in company with singer Lauren Roth, bassist Alex Boneham and drummer Hugh Harvey.