Week 192 – fits and fakes

So, the coldest June here ever (or something like that!), has continued this week. A successful indoor outing on Monday morning was to the NGV’s new children’s exhibition ‘Fake Food Park’ by the Catalan designer Marti Guixe. He had created a big industrial-style kitchen full of brightly coloured/interestingly textured ‘foodstuffs’ which the kids could collect up in bowls and put in various ‘appliances’ which made noises/smells/flashed lights when buttons were pressed and dials turned. When you laid out your foods on a plate and scanned them, the shapes would turn into pictures of very random meals (ours featured a lot of oysters, broccoli and cupcakes). Tommy was particularly taken by the whole thing – give him a few buttons to press and he’ll be happy for hours!

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Afterwards we went for a coffee at the ACMI cafe, and the kids enjoyed racing around in the rain on their dog-shaped high chairs!

I was back at ACMI in the evening to see ‘The Fits’, a new film by first-time writer-director Anna Rose Holmer. Set almost entirely in an inner-city Cincinnati gym/community centre, it was about Toni, a shy young tom-boy who trains with her older brother in the boxing gym but yearns to join the sassy teenage girls in their brilliant and hard-as-nails dance troupe (they really were far more aggressive and terrifying than the boys!). When Toni finally plucks up the courage to audition, the dance team leaders suddenly start suffering from strange ‘fits’ – a type of mass hysteria – which brought to mind Carol Morley’s unsettling film ‘The Falling’ – but these weren’t so much a working out of a trauma, as a mysterious pubescent rite of passage. It was an intriguing film, and the cinematography was stunning.

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On Wednesday night Neil and I went to a performance by the Nederlands Dans Theater. Although based in Holland, the astonishingly talented troupe and choreographers are multinational. They presented three short works. The first, ‘Sehnsucht’, was perhaps the most striking. It started with the gentle, mesmerizing, stretches of a lone male dancer on a black stage, before the backdrop lifted to reveal a small box-like suspended room, containing a pair of dancers (male/female) who performed an intricate and beautifully articulated set of movements exploring the confined space. Periodically the box would rotate – the wall becoming the floor, the floor a ceiling, and the choreography gracefully incorporated this in balances or gentle slides (although on one occasion, one of the dancers suddenly disappeared headfirst out of a window!). A second, contrasting, section featured the whole company, dressed identically in loose black trousers (and ‘topless’ – except the girls were in flesh-coloured body stockings) in an athletic, balletic display responding to Beethoven’s muscular 5th Symphony.

The second work, ‘Solo Echo’, set to several well-chosen sections of Brahms’ wonderful cello sonatas, was a beautiful and melancholy melding of bodies (one reviewer likened it to a ‘moving sculpture’). Against a dreamy backdrop of falling snowflakes, the dancers formed a great, gently undulating organism, their brief moments of individuality (breaking free, almost falling) soon absorbed into the gentle ebb and flow of the conjoined group.

The third piece, ‘Stop-Motion’, played with various pairings of dancers. It explored transition and transformation, and featured large video screens with slow-motion portraits of a flying hawk and a haunted-looking, black-clad, Victorian-costumed lady. It was immaculately performed and there was some great stage-craft (at the end the floor was coated with a layer of white dust which flurried up in cascades as the dancers stomped and twirled around in it), but I wasn’t transported by it. I think the main problem was the dreadfully obvious, emotionally manipulative, music by Max Richter – none of the subtleties of Beethoven or Brahms here!

On Friday we were devastated to hear the results of the Brexit vote (we had voted, by post, to remain). It made us feel further away from our home country than ever – and with the concomitant reduction in academic research funding (45% of education research is currently EU-funded), it will make it harder for us to find work there.

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On Saturday I watched ‘Chameleon’ – a fascinating Canadian-made documentary about Africa’s renowned investigative reporter, the young Ghanaian Anas Aremeyaw Anas. He is known not only for his great success in ‘naming, shaming and jailing’ countless human rights abusers, fraudsters and corrupt officials, but also for his unorthodox undercover methods and mastery of disguise. There are so many people who’d like to get rid of him that he rarely reveals his face in public (disguising it with strings of beads/masks/hoods etc.). He came across as an indefatigable and inspiring man – passionate about justice but also with a nuanced and human concern for victims, and even on occasion, perpetrators, as a case involving an abusive cult demonstrated.

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On my way home through Fed Square I joined some kids interacting with the giant theremin that has temporarily taken up residence by the cathedral. Running in its beam triggered random squeals and tone clusters and growls, it was very entertaining!

After an exhausting Sunday shopping trip into town accompanied by the kids I escaped for an hour into the NGV Ian Potter Gallery. They are currently exhibiting a small selection of photographs by Henry Talbot, a gifted German/Australian photographer who made his mark in the 1960s/1970s taking photos for leading fashion publications (including Australian Vogue). He had a great sense of light and design, and the images were playful and full of movement (some looked as though they could have appeared in a magazine last week!). He had an eye for Melbourne backdrops that could bring to mind Paris or New York, or convey the glamour of flying or disco dancing. An evening dress shoot against the the flashing ‘futuristic’ night lights of the oil refinery was particularly striking.

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A little commercial gallery across the way from the NGV featured winners of this years ‘illuminated glass’ awards – the frondy seahorse caught my eye!

Week 191 – in the bleak midwinter

It was a quiet, cold week, and we didn’t venture much further than the park and the library. Tommy has suddenly discovered the joys of language, and is now (for the first time) trying to mimic words when I say them. But he struggles – although the basic sounds are in the right ball-park (I know his hearing’s fine – he understands pretty complex commands), his words aren’t particularly intelligible. Maisie, by contrast, used to repeat words back perfectly on first hearing (when she was a year younger than him) and would then use them immediately in the correct context! Most of Tommy’s sentences end with the word ‘dub-a-dee’, his favourite catch-all! He has also become obsessed with books and trails after me all day clutching handfuls of them, plaintively shouting ‘bookee?’ – even when I’ve spent the previous hour reading to him as he sits curled up on my lap.

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On a bright Wednesday morning Tommy and I went for a stroll round the Botanical Gardens. Our favourite area is the native rainforest, and he insisted on walking up and down the long winding metal ramp (pushing the stroller) that follows the curves of the little brook for almost an hour.

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When I finally persuaded him to sit in the pram, he insisted on lying down flat so he could look up at the tree canopy! We also enjoyed the last of the autumn colours (the few leaves still clinging on after the recent rainstorms) and the mid-winter blossoms, including the beautiful Yuletide camellia pictured.

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Jeremy and I met up to play Gender Wayang on Thursday evening. He has recently taught me a tricky tune called ‘Banas Pati’, which is the name of an evil forest spirit – some type of demonic fire-fly, that appears as a disembodied floating upside-down skull! They used to be pretty common in Bali apparently, but sightings are rare now!

On Friday night I went to see a film showing in my local cinema’s Polish film festival. Entitled ‘These daughters of mine’, it was a bittersweet tale of two fractious sisters (one a successful but world-weary single actress with a grown-up daughter, the other a flaky hippy alcoholic teacher with a work-shy husband) who have to try and patch things up when both their parents suddenly become very ill. It was mainstream fare, but well-balanced and humane and not overly sentimental. And the almost 100% Polish audience (it was a sell-out) loved it!

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On Saturday, after 3 hours spent cleaning shelves at Maisie’s nursery (my house is never afforded that amount of attention!), we headed up to Richmond for Sam’s kids joint birthday party. She had hired a room in a pleasantly ramshackle ‘neighbourhood house’, with a large covered veranda and an extensive outdoor play area for the kids, which came complete with a shed packed to the rafters with large plastic wheeled toys.

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Children of all ages had a whale of a time getting out every single thing and rampaging around on tractors, scooters and bikes (Tommy, bless him, was most excited to find ‘his’ cart – identical to the one he has at home – and he chose that, out of all the toys, to push round for hours!). There was time to chat and catch up with friends, and enjoy delicious home-made canapes, fine wines, and a cheese board!

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And the fact that there were two birthday cakes, was almost too much for all the kids to take in! They used up all their sugar-energy bashing open the pinata.

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The party ended at dusk and instead of taking Maisie and Tommy home we caught the tram into town, to catch the winter solstice celebration in Fed Square (held on the closest Saturday to the actual solstice). Despite the cold and the drizzle, they were thrilled to be out in the dark.

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The light installations included a big inflatable rainbow-LED-studded ball with dancers inside it, and a great frame hung with Japanese moss balls (Kokedama) complete with an eerie soundscape. Traditional stories were told round a camp fire at the centre of a patch of red earth, brought in from the desert.

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Maisie and Tommy enjoyed a performance by a couple of Indian dancers (whose moves and music spanned folk, classical and bollywood styles!), and were mesmerized by a group of giant roving puppets. The puppets enacted a simple cautionary tale about the environment/rising oceans which involved a massive scary pollution monster hatching out of a tent-like egg.

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As the egg thrashed open and green tentacles appeared, both Maisie and Tommy clutched onto me anxiously, but their curiosity soon overcame their fear, and once the puppets started processing around the square, they both followed closely behind.

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Neil went on to the AAMI stadium to watch England play Australia in an epic rugby union match, and I wrangled the two excitable and loud kids back home on the tram (happily they were both ready to collapse into bed as soon as we got home!).

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On Sunday Elizabeth and I took Juno and Maisie to see the new Disney/Pixar animation ‘Finding Dory’. I remember liking ‘Finding Nemo’ when it came out all those years ago (I haven’t seen it since), but this one was tiresome (and retrod much of the same ground, with the addition of far too many, increasingly ridiculous, stunts), despite the best efforts of Ellen Degeneres as the delightful Dory and some very pretty animation. But the girls seemed to like it, which was the main aim of the outing.

Week 190 – moments of brilliance

The week started well with a fun morning spent at Jules’ house – Maisie, Sam, Adrian, Tommy and Lucy happily careered around her living room and little backyard for several hours (picture courtesy of Jules!).

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In the evening I went to an MSO concert. It was an unabashedly populist programme, starting with Mussorgsky’s gloriously atmospheric ‘Night on Bald Mountain’, followed by Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, with its overload of achingly romantic string melodies and luscious harmonies. Sadly the Chinese pianist, whilst being efficient, simply didn’t have the power to convincingly deliver all those deliciously crunchy chords, so it was a disappointing performance all-in-all. Happily, the orchestra’s focus returned in the final piece, a re-ordering of Prokofiev’s three suites from the ballet ‘Romeo and Juliet’. It was lovely to feel the orchestra relishing the music (and see them emoting – particularly the double bass players, who glowered and stabbed at their instruments at the piece’s fiercest points!). There were several spine-tingling moments, particularly at the powerful jazz-tinged brass-laden climax of the ‘Death of Tybalt’.

On Tuesday Roni, Rowena and I watched the New Zealand comedy ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’. It was about a troubled urban teen who ends up on the run in the forest with his taciturn ‘uncle’ when his beloved foster mother suddenly dies and he’s faced with a return to juvenile detention. The unlikely set-up combined with some delicious comic acting (the young lad was a natural comedian!), and plenty of bonkers Kiwi accents, made for an very entertaining hour and a half. After the film we went for a drink at a neighbouring Polish restaurant called ‘After the Tears’(!). Their vodka menu took up ten pages of the menu – however, we saved those pleasures for another night, and settled for hot toddies (the first time I’ve ever seen those on a menu!).

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On Thursday I caught last year’s Italian box-office smash ‘God Willing’. I’m never quite sure about Italian mainstream fare, as the characters are often such extreme caricatures, but this one neatly wrong-footed its audience on multiple occasions. The basic set-up involved a wealthy, successful, rationalist heart surgeon who is horrified to find out that his son wants to drop out of med school and become a priest. The surgeon becomes obsessed with exposing the charismatic young preacher who he believes has ‘brainwashed’ his son, but it appears that he has, for the first time, met his match. It was funny and clever and surprisingly heart-warming!

Lizzie K (who has just been travelling Europe for 5 weeks with 2-year-old Rosa) and I caught up on Friday night over a glass of wine at a little independent bar just round the corner from us. The local wine was good, but the olives we ordered appeared to have been boiled. They were extremely hot and almost tasteless (it is an odd thing that both olives and muffins are frequently served hot here!).

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On Saturday we went to see the new show at ACCA. Following a recent uninspiring run of exhibitions by Australian artists, this one, presenting a selection of pieces by the German artist Ulla von Brandenburg, was a return to form. Brandenburg is interested in folk traditions, colour theory, dance and the conventions of theatre. Most of the works were video projections, but there were also a couple of mise-en-scenes, one replicating the flies of a theatre hanging with odd garments and historical puppets. The other was a great painted backdrop of a fairytale forest. Maisie decided to pose as both Red Riding Hood and the Wolf!

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All the video pieces were intriguing. One was a shadow-play. Characters from the Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte (a vampish woman and a duelling couple) enacted a scene in costume, then presented the same scene using replica shadow puppets of themselves. Another piece featured a scary group of Sardinian mummers. Another focussed on the backs of a crowd of observers in an empty, dilapidated street, who gradually shuffled round (the camera with them), watching something invisible on the far horizon. It was pretty eerie.

Maisie was captivated by a contemporary dance piece, inspired by colour theory and the dance notations of choreographer Rudolph Laban. White-clad dancers moved in and around a white set of steps in a white studio interacting with a number of brightly coloured blankets. The set was replicated in the gallery and Maisie attempted to copy the dance moves (sweet to watch but, sadly, she shares her mother’s lack of natural grace!).

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We walked up to the NGV to see their latest foyer installation, a mirror maze by Danish artist Jeppe Hein (pictures throughout this week’s blog!). As a kids activity it was great (although I’m not so sure where the art was!). Tommy and Maisie had a great time dashing round being surprised by their reflections and squeezing in between the mirrored pillars (if there wasn’t a gallery attendant watching and telling them off).

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The gallery has recently re-displayed their collection of Pacific Island arts, and we happened to catch the end of a traditional Pacific-Islander dance display.

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We spent a crisp Sunday morning at the skate park. Every time we go the kids get more confident – Maisie mastered a new slope that she’s never attempted before, and Tommy zoomed around, unfazed by all the other skaters whizzing past (and able to keep out of their way). In the afternoon I took Maisie to see a film showing at ACMI (as part of their kids animation festival). Entitled ‘Pim and Pom: The Big Adventure’, it was a cute, simply animated tale (based on a long-running Dutch newspaper cartoon) about two little house-cats who, after a failed cat-napping, find themselves abandoned in the woods and have to find their way home. It was quirky and sweet, and pleasantly slow-paced, with some very cheesy musical numbers, and happily, Maisie really enjoyed it (the following day she wanted to wear her cat mask to childcare so she could play ‘Pim and Pom’ with her friends!).

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Sunday was the last day of the jazz festival, and I joined Sue and her friend Grant, to hear the festival’s headline act, the legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and his quartet (Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade). Shorter is 83 now, and it was clear from quite early on in the gig, that he doesn’t really have anything musically to say any more! He sat, hunched over, clutching his tenor sax, actively listening (mostly – although sometimes he looked ready to doze off) to the intricately busy efforts of his supporting group, and occasionally contributing a brief bird-like riff before subsiding into silence again.

The other musicians were clever and technically brilliant – playing with moods and tempos but never really settling into anything you could get your teeth into – and it was all pretty inward-looking. There were moments later on in the set when Shorter roused himself and rattled off a piercing soprano sax line – a tantalising reminder of his past glories – but then it would die down into a fumbled cadence and yet more silence.

The audience was generous and applauded Shorter for what he had been, rather than what he was that evening. However, Sue’s friend wasn’t quite so charitable – he thought it was cacophonous noise! He wasn’t a jazz fan, had never heard of Wayne Shorter, and left before the end of the gig (to duck into a nearby bar, where we joined him afterwards). Both Sue and I felt his reaction was reasonable – it was possibly the worst introduction to jazz for a complete novice!

Week 189 – a jazz marathon

One of the (many!) highlights of this week has been two separate sightings of Eastern Rosellas (a brilliantly coloured parrot with a red head, yellow/green breast and black/blue/golden wings). The winter chill has brought them into town – the first one I spotted was just outside our living room window!

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On Tuesday night I went to see ‘Chasing Asylum’, a new documentary about the appalling conditions in Australia’s offshore asylum seeker detention centres, which are, to all intents and purposes, concentration camps. Testimonies from volunteers and (mostly ex-)staff (whistle-blowers who had been issued death threats by their superiors), plus concealed camera footage taken inside the squalid centres (no journalists or filming are allowed there) painted a horrific picture. Interleaved with this was news coverage showing a succession of prime ministers glibly handing millions over to brutal security firms and corrupt third-world regimes in their attempts to get rid of the asylum seeker problem.

The city was blanketed with a chilly fog for most of Thursday, but we managed to find some warm sunshine in Heidelberg, one of Melbourne’s hillier, leafier suburbs. I took the kids to the Heide Museum, an independent gallery based in two small houses and a newer purpose-built space set in verdant parklands along the upper reaches of the Yarra River. It’s a lovely place, but a pain to get to on public transport, culminating with a particularly alarming 20-minute walk inches away from a dual carriageway heaving with great industrial trucks.

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The show we came to see was entitled ‘Dancing Umbrellas: an exhibition of light and movement’. It was full of shiny, colourful, moving things and the kids loved it (as I’d hoped they would!). Tommy was intrigued by a mechanical contraption flexing metal springs over light boxes, video-cameras capturing the ensuing colourful refractions and projecting them on the wall. He also loved an optical illusion of painted circles spinning round which appeared to be revolving within each other. I liked an installation of shiny foils (see picture!).

Both the kids enjoyed hanging out in a large luminous pink cardboard tent, watching a hallucinogenic technicolor film of a crazy boxy robot figure dancing (by the artist Justene Williams, whose work I had enjoyed last weekend in Sydney). They were also drawn to all the umbrellas – a rainbow coloured one hung from the ceiling, slowly rotating, and a two-channel video installation showed young artist Belle Bassin’s fun performance piece where she roams the Paris metro swathed in a cocoon of umbrellas; also a dandelion-head of umbrellas explodes in the unexpected rush of air of an under-street air-vent.

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We spent some time running about the outdoor sculpture garden (ignoring the ‘do not climb’ signs!), and interacting with a long-suffering dog dressed in a natty parka. Maisie was keen to see more art (we’d only attempted one of the three galleries), but Tommy was more interested in climbing steps and interacting with automatic doors. My negotiations with him (I couldn’t drag him in kicking and screaming, as the quiet elderly art patrons would have been horrified) didn’t seem to be working, but when we finally made it through the gallery door, and he saw a wall hanging with (bronze) fried eggs, and a case full of spoons (cast in a toxic metal), he perked up.

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The artist was Adelaide-based sculptor Michelle Nikou. Her pieces (sculptures and etchings) were full of domestic symbols – potatoes, eggs, gherkins, toilet rolls – all things familiar to the kids, who enjoyed spotting them. Unexpected things were combined – a woolly jumper was hung with rubbery cast lightbulbs, food packaging was cast in bronze and set with pebbles, concrete flowerpots were emblazoned with neon letters, a wicker washing basket had a woven in neon tube.

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As well as the art, the kids enjoyed the space itself – it is a late mordernist house, and the (incredibly dusty) sofas set in the floating central lounge can be sat on, and the stone slatted staircases climbed up and down (happily the gallery attendant was pretty chilled out!). In the end it was hard to persuade the kids to leave!

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On Friday night I managed to fit in two cultural events – a trashy film and an experimental gig. The film was ‘The Nice Guys’, a 1970s-set odd-couple crime thriller starring Ryan Gosling as a hapless private investigator (and single dad), and Russell Crowe as a world-weary thug-for-hire. Mixed in to a plot-arc reminiscent of Chinatown (with car fumes/air pollution replacing water theft) were dead porn stars, crooked judges, a missing teen, and a barbaric hit man. The Gosling/Crowe banter was highly entertaining, but the extreme violence was hard to stomach.

I joined an unusually diverse crowd (from hip twenty-somethings to well-groomed pensioners) at the Forum, for a performance by the incredibly talented young jazz singer-composer-bassist, Esperanza Spalding, and her band. She is known for her mercurial musical temperament, and for her latest project (a psychedelic funk opera) she has even invented a new persona – Emily. She arrived on stage clad in a gigantic black ball gown, her delicate features hidden under a huge afro, and sang a beautifully delicate a cappella solo. Midway into the song she suddenly turned her back and was swallowed up by the dress, which then became a volcano. A couple of minutes later she emerged in skin-tight white lycra with dangling braids and heavy glasses, and launched into ‘Good Lava’, a chaotic heavy funk groove with lashings of Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa.

It was an impressive start, but the rest of the gig lacked momentum. Each track was (in her words) a ‘live musical vignette’. Everyone (apart from the drummer and guitarist) had to act – the backing singers, dressed in yellow boiler suits, were, variously, librarians, spurned lovers, repressed individuals learning to express themselves through the power of dance. The show sometimes came across as an educational musical – all the lyrics were life-affirming messages about being true to yourself. It was frustrating as it wasn’t really the best showcase for her phenomenal talents. When her voice was allowed to float free of the relentless through-composed pop melodies it was electric, as were the occasions where she had a chance to let rip on the bass (a couple of frenetic improvisations with her guitar/drum rhythm section were amazing).

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On Saturday, despite unrelenting drizzle, we spent most of the day outdoors listening to live jazz! First we went to the premiere of a new piece composed, by local jazz pianist Barney McCall, for the Federation Bells (pictured week 186!). The sounds of the carillon were woven in to a complex improvised soundscape, created by a band of multi-instrumentalists utilising a diverse selection of drums, gongs, homemade electronics, flutes, guitars and bass. There were lots of different moods – varying from great washes of electronic sound and ominous rumblings to shimmering ethereal peels and rhythmic Steve-Reich-like passages. It was very effective – certainly the best bell/musician collaboration that I’ve seen to date. Happily the kids were very taken with it too!

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The gig in Fed Square featured both international and local acts. An enthusiastic audience braved the rain, and the lively female compere did a good job of keeping the energy going! Performing first was the Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke in a new collaboration with the Vampires, a Sydney-based group. The band’s lively take on jazz via balkan melodies and afro-beat was a great back-drop for Loueke’s innovative guitar-playing. Without multi-tracking or trickery he conjured a unique sound – combining lyrical West African melody with fiendishly complex rhythms and remarkable percussive sounds (augmented with his unusual vocal inflections). It was riveting stuff – both Tommy and Maisie moved right to the edge of the stage and gazed up in awe!

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The next act was a Sardinian guitarist who had made lots of intricate mechanical and electronic adjustments to his instrument. It looked fascinating, but the music that he produced was rather pedestrian (and suffered hugely in comparison to Loueke’s mastery!). Tommy decided that he had had enough by this point, so Neil took him home and Maisie and I warmed ourselves up in a nearby cafe.

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After tea and cake we ventured out once again into the drizzle, where one of the festival headliners, saxophonist Gary Bartz, had just begun his set. We pushed through to the front of the loyal crowd so that Maisie could see, and Bartz gave her a big beaming smile! His non-stop set encompassed be-bop, soul, samba and jazz-funk, all delivered in an elegant, unassuming way. It was lovely, and Maisie, almost 3 hours into her rain-soaked jazz marathon was still smiling!

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In the evening I met up with Bianca for my final jazz gig of the weekend (but not of the festival!). We heard the phenomenal US jazz pianist Robert Glasper and his trio (drums and bass). They started off with a cover of Prince’s ‘Sign of the Times’ and it was breathtaking – completely inhabiting the spare funk of the original but taking it in many different directions. Even the outro, where they traded fading snatches of the groove, was incredible (as were all their outros – a feature I love, and one that my hero Django Bates is such a master of!). What was remarkable about Glasper was his complete ease with the piano. His technical mastery seemed completely effortless – it was a joy to watch (as well as hear). He could turn his hand to any style of jazz, from achingly beautiful renditions of soulful melodies to passages of fiercely jagged, almost atonal rhythmic clusters. At one point he played a game with his musicians, starting up a tune – perhaps a thumping Monkish riff, or a saccharine sweet version of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time after Time’, relaxing into it then suddenly breaking off, trying to catch them out, but he never did (they always managed to stop precisely with his last note!).

The weather was dismal on Sunday too, but luckily Maisie had been invited to Lilith’s birthday party. It was the first party she’d been to where there was a children’s entertainer, and it was excellent – Fairy Twinkletoes had all the kids rapt with her comedy magic routine, for over an hour. All we parents had to do was sit and chat and drink coffee! In the afternoon we all watched ‘The Lion King’ on DVD, and Tommy was particularly animated, exclaiming excitedly about all the ‘big cats’!