Stonnington Jazz Festival: double bill a soulful celebration
May 17, 2015 – Jessica Nicholas, The Age

Malvern Town Hall, May 16

This time last year, saxophonist Julien Wilson scored a hat trick at the Bell Awards when his quartet album This is Always took first place in three different categories. The album is, on the surface, a no-frills, no-fireworks affair: an unrehearsed ballads session that happened to produce one of the finest Australian jazz recordings in recent years.

Live, too, this quartet is more about burnished flame than blazing fire, as Wilson and his colleagues demonstrated in their splendid Stonnington Jazz set on Saturday. The double-bill show opened with a duo set from Kristin Berardi and James Sherlock, who managed to conjure a mood of intimacy in the capacious Malvern Town Hall.

Berardi is a wonderfully creative singer, but her horn-like embellishments and variations are never at the expense of the lyrics or the sentiment behind them. Ode to Ollie ached with tenderness, while a playful Tangerine saw the singer stretching and condensing fragments of the lyric over Sherlock’s buoyant guitar lines.

Like Berardi, Julien Wilson has a marvellously fluid quality to his phrasing that makes it feel utterly natural and unforced. He can create an air of majesty with a bold upward sweep on his tenor, or sustain a single, barely-perceptible note with the focus of a Zen monk.

His quartet companions on Saturday (pianist Barney McAll, bassist Jonathan Zwartz and drummer Allan Browne) shared Wilson’s less-is-more inclination, letting each elegant, unhurried piece unfold without the need for showy or virtuosic displays.

Towards the end of the set, the mood became more bluesy and propulsive – particularly on Weeping Willow, which developed a soulful, celebratory swagger before melting into an unexpectedly hushed coda.

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