Eltham Jazz Festival:  Musings from a muso

Words by Damon Grant

A warm and humid late-summer’s day set the mood for the return of The Eltham Jazz, Food & Wine Festival to its home in the Eltham Town Centre on Saturday, February 25th. The festival had to move to Edendale Farm in 2022 due to Covid restrictions. A community centred and volunteer run festival with a history spanning more than 20 years, the festival is sponsored by the Nillumbik Shire Council and the Eltham Chamber of Commerce and Industry and local businesses and community organisations such as the U3A (University of the Third Age).

The festival entertainment is entirely free, and it has a wonderful family friendly atmosphere with an intoxicating combination of music, food and drinks, warm weather and community spirit. A celebratory end to summer.

Musical entertainment kicked off at 11:30 am on the Town Square Stage with The St Helena Secondary College Stage Band playing big band standards. They played with an understanding of swing and jazz style that belied their years and they featured of an array of talented soloists including a standout alto saxophone solo who had learnt a Phil Woods solo from memory. A supportive crowd of several hundred enjoyed the show.

Meanwhile on the Commercial Place stage, the 7 piece recently formed and Hurstbridge based Nu Funk-O-Matics played a soul-funk grooves with a rock tinge and played tunes including Shining Star by Earth, Wind and Fire. 

Back at the Town Square, Nat Bartsch, an Eltham North resident played a sensitive set of original music in an acoustic jazz quartet setting. Her music is contemplative and gentle, her first tune being a lullaby written for her child whilst other tunes included an ode to the loss of koalas in the wild and a piece entitled Hope which is also the title of her about to be released album. Her band of guitar, double bass and drummer Maddison Carter (also an Eltham resident) along with Nat’s classical-like touch created a very relaxed feel which had the attentive audience gently lilting, which perfectly suited the humid afternoon.

As the day rolled-on, the crowd began to grow, as did the feel-good atmosphere. A light sprinkle of rain helped to cool things down a little without being problematic. The crowd was a diverse mix of young and old, and in-between. People with their dogs. Kids in prams and people in wheelchairs aplenty.

By night on the Town square stage The Shuffle Club had the packed dance floor heavying to their high energy swing, jump and jive. The little big band sounds of the Pearly Shells rounded out the evening led by the inimitable Julie O’Hara and her infectious and swinging vocals.

The culmination of the evening session on Commercial Place was the Lachy Doley Group. His tight trio played to a tent packed to overflowing with the crowd spilling on to the street. The tent made for an intimate and at times intense performance with the audience going wild for his energetic and dynamic Hammond organ and Whammy Clavinet solos and his soulful vocals.

Damon Grant is a saxophonist, arranger, composer, recording engineer and educator. He lives in Eltham.