Featured image – The Phil Slater Band

As one of the most prestigious and longest-running music schools in Australia, it is only fitting that the Sydney Conservatorium of Music open its doors to the public, as it did last Sunday, in an event which united International jazz artists with students, to deliver an elite and diverse lineup.

In its inaugural year the program presented a plethora of musicians to represent both popular or traditional jazz and a more highbrow, experimental jazz. Enhanced by the stunning Sydney Harbour location, the Conservatorium of Music is only five minutes walk from Circular Quay; it’s castle-like trusses grandly fill the sky as you enter the through the main entrance. During the week, ‘the Con’ is a home to music students but on this day it became a magical and revered space for the public to share in.

As one of the headlining acts, the Tal Cohen Quintet featuring Greg Osby was an innovative, intense and passionate collaboration. Perth-raised, Miami-based pianist Tal Cohen took to the stage with instant intrigue, engaging the audience with personal anecdotes of his formative years growing up in Israel. Original pieces from his latest album Gentle Giants featured highly modal and pattern-driven pieces which required active focus and attention from the audience – also allowing Cohen’s Israeli and Middle Eastern musical influences to emerge. Chromatic melodies combined with dissonant chordal progressions provided eerily beautiful piano runs followed by abrupt and surprising discord.

Featuring equally acclaimed American saxophonist Greg Osby, the alto saxophone was pushed to its limits exploring its full range in low growls then harsh high squeals. As a seasoned composer, producer and educator, Osby exuded a cool and humble confidence whilst exploring complex chromatic themes and variations. Driving the groove was contrabassist Phil Stack, supported by the staunch Tim Firth on drums. Jamie Oehler’s tenor saxophone was both warm and guttural, effectively balancing the high soaring improve of Osby.

Talented Australian vocalist Jo Lawry took to the stage with her Quartet, presenting a mixed set of country-pop and traditional jazz tunes. Based in New York, Lawry’s musical skill extends beyond the jazz genre as a co-writer for the iconic artist Sting and is soon to tour alongside him and Paul Simon.

Lawry’s natural and warm stage presence shone through as she entered with guitar in hand, kicking off with an original country-style tune – her drummer’s akubra helping set the scene. A cover of the familiar classic Nobody Else but Me by Kern and Hammerstein had audience members toe tapping along, however the stripped back cover of Nat King Cole’s Just You, Just Me was the most charming and impressive. Demonstrating her aptitude for jazz, Lawry’s virtuosic scat improvisation was both beautiful and enthralling, a duet of voice and Will Vincent on alto saxophone featured in Just You, Just Me.

The standout performance came from long-running Perth group Speedball; a powerful, dynamic and well-oiled machine of five. Steered by Mat Jodrell on trumpet and Carl Mackay on alto saxophone, the pumping brass harmonies captivated and energised. Animated solos from pianist Grant Windsor were complimented by the diverse percussive timbres of drummer Daniel Susnjar.

Speedball’s combined accolades impress, ranging from ARIA nominations and National jazz awards through to faculty stature at the James Morrison Academy. Inspired to capture the vitality and authenticity of jazz from the New Orleans and New York City, tunes were polished, high-energy and audience-focused, delivering entertaining chat such as “and now I’m going to talk over the vamp because it’s so showbiz” – Mat Jodrell.

Sydney-based multi award winning trumpeter and composer Phil Slater presented an intense and focused performance. Slater had the most beautiful mellow and husky trumpet tone, however the melodies were quite abstract, unstructured and improvised which was at times challenging to follow as a listener.

Overall, the Sydney Con International Jazz Festival offered an exciting and diverse lineup of national and international jazz musicians for all to be enjoyed. An inviting balance of established and emerging student artists were featured across the eight master classes and sixteen shows; a fantastic opportunity for students to gain new skills and network. The high calibre of musicians and uniquely beautiful interior of the Con made for an entertaining and thought-provoking day.