Review: Emma Pask Big Band Show at Sydney Festival

Reviewed by Priscilla Issa

Emma Pask, one of Australia’s foremost jazz vocalists, and her talented big band made up for what can only be described as a devastating blow to Sydney’s music scene in 2021. Boy, they sure delivered a night to remember!

The setlist covered an array of works, including familiar swing numbers of the 30s, smooth ballads of the 50s and 60s, and fiery Latin numbers. Ed Wilson put together a smorgasbord of sophisticated arrangements, some of which he’d created and others which Pask has been performing since her early days touring with James Morrison.

The show, part of the Sydney Festival, catered to jazz aficionados, classic all-time jazz appreciators, and families wanting a night on the town.

Pask introduced each item, mentioning the profound role it had played in the history of jazz music. But it was her vocal chops (coupled, of course, with her performativity) that gave weight to each song’s significance. She is not afraid of belting her way through big swing numbers. She’s also not afraid of showcasing the sultry and velvety sounds of her lower and middle registers in more subdued songs. It must be said that her scats are what make her a standout jazz performer; she moves through outrageously fast numbers with ease. Her scats are intended to be an homage to the great scatters of the 20th Century.

Pask started off with the 1931 hit, “It don’t mean a thing”. From the get-go the audience could sense that Emma’s vocals, and the sax solos of Andrew Robertson and Matt Keegan, would do justice to the signature Duke Ellington sound. In 2019, Pask performed at the International Jazz Festival held in Cuba There, she roused the audience with explosive, passionate Latin American sounds and rhythms. Her performance of Cuban writer Osvaldo Farres’ popular “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” took the audience on a trip to the smokin’ streets of Havanna. Shoulders were moving to Phil Stack’s animated pizz on double bass and James Greening’s trombone slides. Pask then brought us back home, performing an arrangement on Aussie rock classic, “Reminiscing”. Her singing really had the audience reminiscing on easier times “walking through the park” and “dancing in the dark”.

Wilson’s arrangement of Lionel Richie’s “Hello”, was brilliant. The vocal and instrumental phrasing was free-flowing, the dynamic variation sophisticated, and the diction in the vocal riffs was exceptional. Convincing the audience of her musical prowess, Pask then went on to perform the tricky 1948 Cole Porter tune “Too Darn Hot” from his musical, Kiss Me Kate. This was a personal favourite because it showcased the instrumental talent on stage. The trombone solos of James Greening, Alex Silver and Mark Barnsley created the musical’s famous scene where the performers, during intermission, laze about sizzling in the Baltimore heat.

What could be a more relevant ballad than Louis Armstrong’s “A Wonderful World”? Matthew Collins and Louise Horwood on trumpet created that universally felt yearning for a better day. They executed brilliant vibratos, adding colour and texture over Pask’s languid melodic line.

A jazz program is not complete without the Brazilian hit, “Mas Que Nada”. Pask was nominated for an Aria Award for her album Cosita Divina, which features this famous samba. The multiple key changes, toe-tapping beats, groovy bass, electrifying brass harmonies, and piano extraordinaire Matt McMahon’s solo transported us to the colourful Rio Carnival.

“Take the A Train” tells the story of Duke Ellington providing Billy Strayhorn with directions from Pittsburgh to New York City to join his band. Pask handled the mouthful of lyrics and rapid succession of notes with finesse. Couple these vocal skills with Tim Firth’s percussion and you truly get the sense of a train chugging along. It was a treat for the imagination.

The show tunes, “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans” and “Let’s call the whole thing off”, highlighted Pask’s mastery over her upper register and her competence in acting. She really has a grasp of this “performer” thing – the equilibrium of technical mastery and showmanship.

This was a beautifully crafted and impeccably performed show. Pask and her band are superb performers, and it’s clear that they love music and want to share the awesomeness that jazz offers. Well done one and all!

Image Credit: Jacquie Manning