The Southern Spring Festivals

posted November 2007

My usual mix of gigs was spiced up this spring by a few jazz festival bookings, the first of which was on the tropical wildlife haven Magnetic Island, off the coast from Townsville, North Queensland.

More than half of the island is national park and huge granite boulders and rocky headlands differentiate this small paradise from other parts of Queensland I've seen. In between the various jazz performances I enjoyed gorgeous bush walks to secluded beaches along picturesque paths past an unexpected assortment of tall hoop pines, eucalypts and banyan trees.

Jazz musicians from Canberra, Brisbane and Sydney and Auckland convened at the magnetic resort for 3 days. I had 2 gigs with my band, but honestly the highlight of the weekend was listening to saxophonist John Mackie's ferocious, lyrical and imaginative playing. He seems like Coltrane's reincarnation.

It was a thrill to be invited home to NZ in October to perform with my Quartet at the annual ASB Queenstown Jazz Festival. Other Australian-based talent included Vince Jones.

We arrived late in the afternoon, the day of our first gig, following a very early morning flight from Sydney to Christchurch and a very nerve-wracking near-miss connection to a low altitude flight over the glorious snow-clad Southern Alps. It was one of the most spectacular flights of my life and certainly an excellent introduction to this astonishingly scenic region.

Running late, we went straight to sound check then grabbed a quick Pizza & Pinot at the town's famous establishment "The Cow". I can recommend it! We drew a good crowd that night at the Casino and it was great to meet, hear and play with a few of the other musicians during the jam session afterwards.

I spent the following afternoon walking part of the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand's nine "Great Walks". It takes about an hour's drive along the length of the magnificent Lake Wakitipu to reach the walk's entrance, near Glenorchy. The Routeburn lies wholly within two national parks: Mount Aspiring National Park and Fiordland National Park and I'm told the scenic payoffs along the Routeburn's alpine stretches far surpass those of the lower, often cloudier Milford, so I hope to return one day to walk the entire track.

We weren't booked to perform that evening so I rested my weary limbs in a quaint and cosy restaurant - the kind that always springs to mind when one thinks of Queenstown, where a wood fire blazes and the area's award-winning Pinot Noirs flow abundantly and perfectly compliment the astounding cuisine. The romantic ambience was further honed as I walked back to the hotel - the foray into the cold alpine air rewarded by the breathtaking view of the moonlit snow-capped mountain range (The Remarkables), which surround the charismatic township.

On the final afternoon of our stay, and indeed the day of final gig late that evening, I was incredibly lucky to be invited on a guided tour of Skippers Canyon (see which is tucked away in the mountains behind Queenstown. From the minute we crested the rise at the entrance to Skippers I knew I was in for an extraordinary adventure…

Being the epicenter of the region's gold-mining boom in the 19th century, Skippers Canyon is steeped in fascinating history. The Shotover River which snakes through the canyon was formerly referred to as the richest river in the world and it lured thousands of prospectors to its banks after gold was discovered there in 1862.

The Canyon felt like a vast, enigmatic and formidable entity. Skippers Road, carved out of the rock landscape by the gold miners in the 1800's, was considered a 22 km long engineering feat in its day and although my driver was clearly an expert at manoeuvring his 4-wheel drive along the narrow, unsealed road, I was at times terrified as I was not unaware of the devastatingly sheer drop that hugs the road at many points. Not surprisingly, part of Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" was filmed on this spectacularly moody road.

Our final festival booking of this season was at "Jazz in the Vines", a popular annual open-air music extravaganza that takes place at Tyrrells Vineyard in the halcyon Hunter Valley wine-growing region, two hour's drive north of Sydney.

Each performance was projected simultaneously onto a huge movie screen. While one stage was in use, the next band was setting up on the other stage, accommodating a day of non-stop entertainment, wine, food and sun-baking. This year, a crowd of 8000 reportedly passed through.

I really enjoyed my set with Wanderlust which comprises four of my usual band members, plus Alister Spence on Keys and James Greening on Trombone. Thankfully, considering there was no sound check, we had a pretty good sound set-up. We were followed by star acts included David Campbell and Doug Parkinson. It was a joyous day and I am truly grateful for this and all the splendid acquaintances and experiences that performing and sharing music has brought my way.