Madeleine Peyroux.

Photo: Shervin Lainez

June 7 – 10, various venues

To be frank, when I saw that Madeleine Peyroux had been programmed for the closing night of this year's Melbourne International Jazz Festival, I thought festival organisers had made a mistake. Having seen two disappointing shows by Peyroux – including one at Rod Laver Arena where the singer looked as though she wished the floor would swallow her – my expectations were low.

Sun Ra Arkestra at the Night Cat in Fitzroy.

Photo: Jessica Nicholas


So I was delighted – and relieved – to discover that Peyroux finally seems comfortable on stage, with a relaxed manner to match the seductive beauty of her music. Her voice has always been beguiling, but on Sunday night she invited us into her world, studding the lyrics with playful asides and half-whispered confessions to lend each song an air of intimacy. Her rapport with her band felt as natural as her wondrously elastic phrasing, and her music exuded a languid warmth that was balm for the ears after some pretty intense festival fare earlier in the week.

Young UK saxophonist Nubya Garcia and her band generated fireworks aplenty in their impressive Australian debut. While the rhythm section built waves of visceral momentum, Garcia stood calmly amid the turbulence, riding the robust rhythms with powerful, sustained phrases and a full-bodied tone on tenor that never sounded abrasive, no matter how urgent her playing became.

Christian McBride's new band New Jawn was also more hard-hitting than the trio he brought to the festival in 2013. With a chordless quartet (McBride on bass, Marcus Strickland on sax and bass clarinet, Josh Evans on trumpet and the phenomenal Nasheet Waits on drums), the emphasis this time was on intently focused interplay, the quartet exhibiting razor-sharp reflexes as they leapt in tight, sometimes angular formation, across choppy time-feels or delved into more open, exploratory passages. McBride's natural effervescence bubbled to the surface on the final number: a buoyant calypso jaunt through Ornette Coleman's The Good Life.

Italian saxophonist Francesco Cafiso made a real splash on his first visit to the festival in 2005, the then 15-year-old thrilling audiences with his already prodigious technique. Thirteen years later, Cafiso's facility and fluidity on the alto sax are still in abundant evidence. But his one-hour set of jazz standards, using conventional arrangements and a local rhythm section, felt more like a regular gig than a festival show.

And then there was the Sun Ra Arkestra, led by the impossibly sprightly 94-year-old Marshall Allen. The Arkestra's Night Cat show was performed in the round, with the audience – beaming, swaying, dancing, nodding – clustered around the magnificently costumed ensemble. The acoustic balance was awful and I could hardly see a thing (even standing on tiptoes on a chair), but it didn't matter a bit. This was music that made you happy to be alive: pulsing with chaotic energy and shot through with the flavours of New Orleans, big-band swing and zany vibrations from the free-jazz cosmos.

Allen (on squalling saxophone, wailing electronic wind instrument and vocal chants) was still on stage two hours later, as the rest of the band paraded through the elated crowd. No doubt Ra himself would be gratified that his music – and his message – still resonate so clearly with a new generation of listeners.

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