Michael Tortoni

VCA alumnus leads the 2012 jazz festival

Melbourne International Jazz Festival Creative Director Michael Tortoni explains why a 100-year jazz tradition isn’t something that you just dabble in.

By Lieu Thi Pham

Jazz as a musical genre is difficult and contentious to define, but alumnus Michael Tortoni (DipArts (Music) 1984) offers improvisation as an essential element.

‘I don’t think you can be considered a jazz musician if you can’t improvise, it’s absolutely critical – that’s what ultimately stimulates me about jazz.’

In practical terms, Tortoni defines the day-to-day life of a jazz musician consisting of listening, composing, improvisation (of course), gigging and performances.

‘I think a jazz musician is really a lifestyle – you live and breathe it – in a way that it consumes your whole life’, he explains.

On a philosophical level, he offers: ‘It’s about exploring the boundaries of jazz, questioning what’s happening in the past and looking to the future.’

Tortoni should know – he’s been involved in music all his life. As a teenager he was bass player, playing under the alias Michael Gemini, for glam-rockers Taste, considered the first band in Australia to be signed to a major record label (Warner Bros) in 1973.

In the eighties, a young Tortoni went on to study a classical stream at the VCA and performed in jazz quintets to earn a living. He said these were some of his most memorable years.

‘I made a lot of life-long musician friends,’ he says. ‘I think an institution of learning like the VCA is a very valuable part of your development – as a student and musician.’

‘I think music is a great way to spend your life, but it’s not an easy living so you need to be dedicated and versatile.’

This year, Tortoni takes the creative reins at the 2012 Melbourne International Jazz Festival.  In this year’s program, he has conjured up a star-studded line up including jazz royal Patti Austin, the god-daughter of Dinah Washington and Quincy Jones.

From his perspective, Patti Austin’s, along with Dee Dee Bridgwater Sings, will be sure crowd-pleasers, but for something more challenging, his pick would go to the McCoy Tyner Trio.

‘This project is really based on a 1963 recording where John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner were recording,’ Tortoni explains, ’so it’s a bit of a nostalgic performance.’

For musicians, the free masterclass events are a rare chance to get inside the minds of contemporary jazz artists such as  George Garzone, Dr Lonnie Smith and Renaud Garcia-Fons, and to learn about their techniques and compositions.

If a creative director role wasn’t keeping him busy enough, Tortoni is also the owner and manager of the much respected Bennetts Lane Jazz Club.

Since opening in 1982, the music venue has hosted several local and international performances including fellow VCA alumni Andrea Keller (BMusPerf(Hons) 2001) and Simon Starr (BMusPerf 1993). And there have of course been the occasional international stars that pop by; of memorable note is Prince’s secret shows in both 2003 and more recently — May of this year.

When asked the question that so many musicians dread, ‘what would your dream band look like?’, he replies with the expected: ‘There are so many – I could rattle on.’

Eventually, he delivers the ultimate line-up: Wayne Shorter (sax), Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Brad Melhldou (piano), John Patitucci (double bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums).

‘That would be my dream quintet,’ he says, ‘And I would pay big money to see that.’

A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.