Jazz down under: 10 Australian artists to know

Even in its early days, jazz managed to make it all the way across the planet to Australia.

With close ties between American and Australian entertainment companies, it didn’t take long at all for the genre to gain popularity down under. Not unlike the Canadian jazz scene, Australian jazz was imported from its U.S. roots and it can be challenging and rare for its purveyors to become household names around the world. The list of Australian jazz artists that the average Canadian can name is likely as short as the list of Canadian jazz artists that the average Australian can name.

But just like in Canada, the country has its own celebrated jazz champions, hidden gems and rising stars — and for the aficionados out there, many of these players are worth getting to know.

This year, Australia was the host of International Jazz Day. More than 190 countries celebrated the UNESCO-designated occasion on Tuesday, April 30, marking the end of Jazz Appreciation Month. In Melbourne, a roster of musicians from more than a dozen countries performed as part of the live-streamed All-Star Global Concert, led by artistic co-directors Herbie Hancock and James Morrison and musical director John Beasley.

Of course, it’s virtually impossible to whittle down an entire country’s decades-old jazz scene into one digestible list. But here are 10 of the many noteworthy Australian artists to check out — from the Hall of Fame classics, to the well-established local favourites, to the under-the-radar talents.

James Morrison
Credit: jamesmorrison.com

The essentials

Graeme Bell

This pianist, composer and bandleader was so integral to Australian jazz music during his life that the Australian Jazz Bell Awards and the Graeme Bell Hall of Fame are named after him. Widely recognized as one of Australia’s leading promoters of jazz music, Bell began his career in the 1940s, and by the new millennium he had made more than 1,500 recordings and performed in thousands of concerts in Australia and around the world. He and his Australian Jazz Band‘s music “was hailed for its distinctive Australian edge,” according to Melbourne newspaper The Age. They were the first of their kind to tour Europe, and Bell has been credited with bringing dancing back to British jazz. Bell died of a stroke in 2012, at age 97.

James Morrison

If you wanted to make a comparison, you might consider James Morrison to be somewhat like the Guido Basso of Australian jazz. He has been a linchpin of the country’s jazz industry since the mid ’80s and continues to record award-winning albums to this day. While his main instrument is the trumpet, Morrison is also an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, having played the trombone, tuba, flugelhorn, saxophone, clarinet, double bass, guitar and piano. He was the first Australian to play with Dizzy Gillespie, and has also worked with Ray Charles, B. B. King, Quincy Jones, Frank Sinatra, Herbie Hancock, Whitney Houston, Wynton Marsalis, Arturo Sandoval and more. Morrison has been nominated 13 times for the ARIA Award for best jazz album, winning twice — first in 2010 for Feels Like Spring with a capella group The Idea of North, and again in 2017 for The Great American Songbook with the BBC Concert Orchestra, Keith Lockhart, Patrick Danao and his sons, Harry and William. In 2015, he opened the James Morrison Academy of Music, a dedicated jazz school affiliated with the University of South Australia.

Paul Grabowsky

Another giant in Australian jazz, Paul Grabowsky has recorded more than 30 albums. Much of the pianist and composer’s work has been scoring for film, television, theatre and opera. He has a whopping six ARIA Awards out of 15 nominations.

In the early ’80s, he found work in Europe and the U.S., playing with American jazz greats like Chet Baker, Art Farmer and Johnny Griffin. When he returned to Australia, he built a reputation as one of the country’s most distinguished musicians with the Paul Grabowsky Trio along with his quartet and sextet, the Wizards of Oz ensemble and plenty other work as a composer, performer and musical director. He has worked with countless other names in Australian jazz, including several of the artists also mentioned in this list.

Kate Ceberano

Australian radio stations have called her “one of the greatest voices our music industry has ever produced,” and she’s one of the most prolific female artists in her era of Australian music. After making a name with the New Wave band Models and funk band I’m Talking, Kate Ceberano struck out on her own in the late ’80s and carved out her legacy with a repertoire built around soul, jazz and pop. This May, she’ll release her 20th studio album: a jazz collaboration with Paul Grabowsky called TrystOther notable records include You’ve Always Got the Bluesa 1988 duet album with Wendy Matthews that was nominated for five ARIA Awards and won two of them, including best female artists for Ceberano; Braveher triple-platinum 1989 pop breakout; and Bittersweeta 2009 album of jazz standards with U.S. musician Mark Isham, nominated for best jazz albumBy now, the singer has racked up five platinum albums, five gold albums and more than 1.5 million albums sold in her home country.

Vince Jones

This singer-songwriter taught himself to play the trumpet after hearing Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain at age 14. That marked the beginning of a lucrative career that has spanned several decades. One of Australia’s leading jazz vocalists, Jones insists on feeling and expression over technique, singing “like there’s nothing to prove.” He’s known both for his original compositions and his contemporary takes on jazz standards, with a sound that fuses African-American blues tradition and Celtic folk melodies, and lyrics that often address issues of inequality and injustice. Jones has released 17 albums, including collaborations with Kate Ceberano and Paul Grabowsky. He has won two ARIA Awards for best jazz album — It All Ends Up In Tears in 1988 and Provenance in 2016 — and four of his other records have been nominated for the title.

Others worth knowing: Sandy Evans, Allan Browne, Barney McAll, Judith Durham, John Sangster, Renée Geyer, Frank Gambale, Jim Conway, David Ades.

Katie Noonan
Credit: Facebook

The gems

Katie Noonan

Since the mid-’90s, this singer-songwriter has kept busy. One of Australia’s hardest-working and versatile artists and collaborators, Katie Noonan has released 18 albums to date — her latest, The Little Green Road to Fairylandcame out this month — as a solo artist, with her beloved indie-rock band george and jazz trio Elixir, and with several other past and ongoing projects. Noonan has won three ARIA Awards for best jazz album — Before Time Could Change Us with Paul Grabowsky in 2005, Blackbird: The Music of Lennon and McCartney in 2009 and First Seed Ripening with Elixir in 2011 — won two more in other categories, and earned 25 total nominations. She has managed to book gigs performing for the British and Danish royal families and the Dalai Lama. Her greatest asset might be her versatility; she is perfectly comfortable playing an intimate jazz club or fronting a chamber orchestra, and she has worked in a wide variety of styles, including collaborations with electronic producers Flight Facilities, hip-hop artist Drapht and poet Michael Leunig. Noonan has also been a supporter of the next generations of women in Australian music, having mentored new artists such as singer-songwriter Ainslie Wills and the all-sisters rock group Stonefield.

Emma Pask

First discovered by the aforementioned James Morrison at a high-school concert when she was 16, Emma Pask has since grown into an internationally renowned jazz vocalist. While her biggest audience seems to remain in Australia, Pask has high-profile fans all over the world, having received high praise from her coach Ricky Martin and having sung for Princess Diana and at the wedding of Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban. Pask has had the run of the Australian jazz charts several times throughout her career, with her independent, self-funded album Some Other Spring and her Christmas album Season of My Heart holding the No. 1 spot for many weeks. She’s released 12 albums to date, evenly split between solo releases and as Morrison’s vocalist. Season of My Heart earned a best jazz album nomination in 2014 and Cosita Divina earned one in 2016. “Whilst it’s fashionable to be a jazz singer these days, she is the real thing,” Morrison says.

The Idea of North

Kind of like The Tenors, but with more jazz and less O Canada controversy. The Idea of North is Australia’s darling a cappella group, named after a 1967 radio documentary by Canada’s own Glenn Gould. They were formed in 1993 as a jazz quartet, but since then have added a fifth member and expanded into folk, gospel, pop, classical and comedy. The group features tenor Nick Begbie, soprano Trish Delaney-Brown, alto Naomi Crellin, bassist Luke Thompson and vocal percussionist Kaichiro Kitamura. The Idea of North has released a dozen albums, winning two jazz awards: the first for Feels Like Spring with — you guessed it — James Morrison, and the second for SmileTheir latest nomination came in 2016 for their most recent album, Ballads.

Others worth knowing: Jonathan Zwartz, Sarah McKenzie, The Necks, Jeremy Rose, Black Jesus Experience, Stu Hunter, Kristin Berardi, Joseph O’Connor, Matt McMahon.

Linda May Han Oh
Credit: Shervin Lainez

The newcomers

Linda May Han Oh

Malaysia-born and Australia-raised bassist Linda May Han Oh grew up on the Red Hot Chili Peppers and, understandably, poured tons of time and effort into becoming a master of the low end. Nowadays, she’s a rising star in the jazz world who’s getting noticed around the world. The 34-year-old has collected numerous scholarships, awards and nominations, and she’s currently playing bass for Pat Metheny’s quartet. But more notably, she has released three critically acclaimed albums this decade: 2012’s Initial Here, 2013’s Sun Pictures and 2017’s Walk Against WindShe’s now working on a new release, and it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on what’s next for this bass maven.

Evan Harris

At age 25, saxophonist Evan Harris is already making quite a name for himself. Now based in New York via Sydney, he has received a number of scholarships, studies at the Juilliard School, and has had the honour of performing alongside Wynton Marsalis, Bill Charlap, Etienne Charles, Vince Giordano and others. His debut album Skylines has garnered critical acclaim and nabbed three Bell Awards nominations, including earning him the title of young Australian jazz artist of the year in 2018.

Others worth knowing: Chris Frangou, Harry Mitchell, Olivia Chindamo, Tiana Khasi, Sean Foran, the Jake Mason Trio, Michael Griffin, The Rookies, Case Golden, Harriett Allcroft, Enzo Lunch, Josh Kelly.