A Brief Introduction to Melbourne’s Jazz and Soul Scene

Audrey Powne

Brownswood’s new compilation Sunny Side Up serves two purposes. First, it acts as a showcase for Melbourne, Australia’s burgeoning jazz scene. But, more tantalizingly, it also serves as a kind of musical map, documenting the way the musicians within the scene are connected to one another.

The grooves on Sunny Side Up are built on stunning instrumental proficiency, all of it in service of music that loosely falls under the umbrella of jazz, but also maps out to a whole universe of musical styles. There’s the neo-soul of Philadelphia—particularly in the work of singers Allysha Joy and Audrey Powne; there’s a hint of the off-grid rhythms of the California “beat scene.” The ghosts of Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, and Don Cherry are ever present, but you’re just as likely to hear the influence of Masters At Work, Theo Parrish, or João Gilberto—as well as elements of the city’s own thriving experimental electronic scene.

All of this comes from a network of musicians who live, work, and play together in an extraordinarily lively and fertile environment. Melbourne is Australia’s second largest city—its population of four million closely rivals Sydney’s—and it prides itself on being a center of culture. “It has the most music venues [per head] in the country,” says Alejandro Jay Abapo, aka Silent Jay, keystone scene player and member of Hiatus Kaiyote. “That means it has some of the most in the world.” So active is the live music scene, in fact, that a musician like Dufresne—leader of a nine-piece disco-driven band—found it worth moving the 450 miles from Adelaide to make a career as a session trombonist.

As Dufresne puts it, the musical environment in Melbourne is as “not so much a scene as a bunch of share-houses filled with broke musos who like to hang out playing music with each other all day.” In fact, says Kuzichi Zambelan, aka Kuzich, a regular collaborator with Dufresne in the “art based resistance movement” Mandarin Dreams, “more than half the players on Sunny Side Up have lived in the same house. When you can share records, drink coffee, play music, and discuss the world with people you love, something special happens. Without realizing it you find yourself operating in a world that centers around experimentation and authenticity.” (Kuzich moved more than 2,000 miles across Australia from Perth to be part of this.)

Bradley Zero, the British star DJ who considers Melbourne a “second home” and has championed the scene through his sets and Rhythm Section International label, calls this “the pressure cooker effect.” Alluding to the sheer size and geographical isolation of Australia, he says, “The logistical difficulties of breaking out of the scene mean that musicians end up staying local and collaborating for much longer than they would in Europe—which means they build up these superhuman musical skills, so that when they finally get momentum to fly the nest, the musicianship is through the roof.”

Ever since Hiatus Kaiyote blew up internationally in 2012—getting love from everyone from the likes of Prince, Erkyah Badu, and D’Angelo—this scene has been slowly gathering momentum. Australia as a whole is burdened by a conservative, insular government, but Melbourne flies the flag for a different possible future as a multicultural, creative, modern nation—one that “isn’t burdened creatively by history in the way some American cities are,” says Audrey Powne. In an age of stream-counts and digital relationships, it’s also a model for how real people in real places can build stronger scenes. Record stores, venue infrastructure, share-houses, coffee shops, and community radio—they all contribute to a scene that, as Allysha Joy puts it, “is happening live, is multi-dimensional, and that can’t ever be captured in its entirety. I think that’s part of what makes Melbourne feel so special.”

Here are just a few of the names lighting up the Melbourne jazz scene.

Horatio Luna

Horatio-Luna

Henry Hicks, aka Horatio Luna, specializes in mixing jazz fusion with Moodymann-style deep house. He remembers seeing “burning paddocks in rural New South Wales [the Australian state a few hundred miles north of Melbourne] and thinking to myself, ‘I’m definitely the only person listening to Miles Davis’s Tutu within a 300 kilometer radius!’ So for me, just the idea that people are receiving my music is enough. I’m laughing.” His latest EP features members of 30/70 Collective, Mandarin Dreams, and Quarter Street Soul, while a previous one from last year features Jace XL, Silent Jay, and Perrin Moss from Hiatus Kaiyote, plus Ziggy Zeitgeist from 30/70 and Zeitgeist Freedom Energy Exchange.

30/70 Collective

30 70-collective

They call themselves a “community,” not a band; they feature Allysha Joy on lead vocals; and they deal in “a cosmic mélange of boom-bap dynamics, neo-soul harmonies, and jazz-funk licks. Their rambunctious, party-rocking sets were one of the key things that first drew London’s Bradley Zero into the local scene when he came over as part of the Boiler Room team, and since then he has released their first album and new single on his Rhythm Section International label. Joy’s recent solo material featuring members of the band is more personal and intense but every bit as thrilling.

Mildlife

One of the most cosmic of all the Melbourne bands. Mildlife create an amazing blend of funk, fusion, disco, and ’70s/’80s Euro prog/psychedelic music that occasionally veers into the Balearic. Their wide-ranging sound has netted them favor with DJs across a broad swath of genres. Like so many in Melbourne’s creative pressure cooker, they’ve played together relentlessly for years, and their legendary live shows are a testament to this fact.

Wondercore Island

If you want a wider-angle snapshot of the scene once you’ve digested Sunny Side Up, check the catalog of promoters and label Wondercore Island. Their mixtapes collect the best of Melbourne and wider Australian talent, often for worthy fundraising drives. They also release gorgeous single-artist LPs, like Melbourne producer Andrei Eremin (aka Ghosting)’s elegantly laid-back reimagining of Studio Ghibli soundtracks.

Audrey Powne

A key voice of the Melbourne scene, Powne is happy singing lavish showstoppers solo, sweltering slow jams with The Leisure Centre (who have been remixed by local talents like Horatio Luna and Amin Payne), or off-the-wall Prince-y electro-boogie with James Bowers as Au Dré. A performer in the local jazz scene since her teens, she’s proud to say that while her compadres might well venture into R&B, disco, or jazz, “they do not fall neatly into those categories or adhere to the boundaries of those traditions—and they never could, because they are uniquely Australian to my ears.”

The Senegambian Jazz Band

With their fretless bass, lyrical sax lines, and glossy jazz fusion arrangements that occasionally flirt with yacht rock, The Senegambian Jazz Band fit in perfectly with the sunny sounds and ultra accomplished playing of their Melbourne compadres. But what makes the band stand out are the vocals and cascading kora (West African harp) of Amadou Suso, originally from The Gambia. With other members from Ethiopia, Ghana, and Senegal, the band produce the kind of cultural blend that in lesser hands would risk dilution and blandness. But thanks to Melbourne’s living live gig culture, where bands learn their chops playing to culturally voracious, dancing crowds, they find the highest common factors among all of their influences.

Zeitgeist Freedom Energy Exchange

ZFEX-600

The band led by 30/70 member Ziggy Zeitgeist specialize in full-on ‘70s jazz fusion for the dancefloor. But as Ziggy says: “Jazz can be whatever you want these days—if you can teach your computer to improvise, then for me, that’s jazz.” His group is just as comfortable venturing into house, broken beat, or ’80s electro as they are in beads ‘n’ bongos territory.

Clever Austin

CleverAustin-600

Hiatus Kaiyote’s drummer deserves ample attention in his own right. A brilliant producer and songwriter, he’s just released his debut solo album through the U.K.’s Touching Bass label, which features local talent like Laneous and CASEUX OSLO, as well as Texas’s Jon Bap and the mighty Georgia Anne Muldrow from California. The story of how he landed on Touching Bass is quintessentially Melbourne: Touching Bass’ Errol Anderson says his first visit to Melbourne culminated in “a night with good conversation, where loads of amazing musicians ended up getting involved in a jam at an Ethiopian restaurant. That then led to us hanging with Clever Austin, which then resulted in us releasing his debut record, Pareidolia!”

Albrecht La’Brooy

One vital part of Melbourne’s appeal is its beauty, and Allysha Joy cites being “surrounded by incredible nature” as a reason why the city is so conducive to creativity. The duo of Sean La’Brooy and Alex Albrecht have taken that to heart, and their new record—released through the legendary ambient label Apollo, a subidiary of the Belgian/British R&S Records—was recorded in a mud-brick hut on a strawberry crop in the Melbourne countryside. The results are exquisite ambient classical/jazz, with natural sounds floating on top. There are, of course, collaborations with other local musicians, like percussionist Joseph Batrouney and guitarists Carla Oliver and Oliver Patterson. La’Brooy echoes the feeling that Melbourne is “so much more collaborative than competitive in comparison to some bigger cities. This breeds a sense of freedom that can lend itself nicely to the music.”

-Joe Muggs

One Comment

  1. tapedeckpodcast
    Posted July 25, 2019 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    This is super informative! I wrote a small review of the Sunny Side Up compilation a few days ago (https://tapedeckpodcast.com/spectreview-various-artists-sunny-side-up/), but it’s good to see all this expository info about these artists, they’re all worth checking out!

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