Exquisite: An Evening with Mama Alto is 'exquisite' and yet so much more. Mama Alto animates a highly textured soundscape, transforming every song into a sensual, fully humanised experience. She commands the stage and has a rare gift to master intensity while making her audience feel comfortable. We follow intricate jazz narratives as her voice caresses and extracts yet another layer of lyrical meaning, we listen as her music swirls primary colour with shade and hold collective breath as phrases become epic journeys. Mama Alto connects us to our own heart space.
Exquisite: An Evening with Mama Alto has been the highlight of my 2017 musical calendar. Mama sets new standards in jazz musicianship. Credit: Alexis Deaulniers-Lea
Gracing Kilda's National Theatre on September 2nd 2017, Mama Alto with her musical director and virtuosic pianist Miss Chief, created a resonant jazz experience that has set the standard for jazz cabaret. It was a masterclass in musical interpretation. Mama Alto is already a legend in the LGBTIQA community but I urge mainstream Australia and the music-arts community to support this gifted songstress, she needs to take her place on the international stage.
Mama Alto has exquisite hand styling, timed to lyrical phrasing that pulls and pushes each note, chord and emotion. Credit: Trent Pace
Mama struts elegant diva glamour but makes it real with genuine street-cred. She punctuates a program of sublime musical arrangements with a fluid reflective banter, helping the audience to contextualise Jazz and appreciate its place in human history.
Mama personifies jazz-style by packaging big-stage music, into a relaxed, living-room vibe. Her cabaret tapestry includes light-hearted humour, garden-party style cups of tea, pertinent social comment, sexual invitation with languid poise across the grand piano and a serenade improvisation of 'Happy Birthday', Marilyn Munroe-style. We follow Mama as she walks, talks and uses the concert hall space. Then we become transfixed on her voice as she sings without movement, for she knows that all the movement needed is that which comes from her melodic inspiration. In song, eyes focus on her feminine hand-styling that may have been influenced by Javanese dance. Through Mama's voice and simple, understated theatrics we experience time, space and movement in a very sensual way.
Beyond listening, beyond watching- we feel her. Mama sings like a woman who knows pain and struggle. Her charisma comes from love: her love of music, the joy of jazz, and the hope that waits on the other side of a gritty struggle. Mama tells the stories within each song, gives the songs historical context, and tells us about the life and times of the original artists. This is what it means to share an exquisite evening with Mama Alto.
Mama Alto opened the show with a statement of joy that her beloved St Kilda, must be its own country to have a 'national' theatre. Off-the-cuff humour creates an intimate and relaxed vibe. Credit: Alexis Deaulniers-Lea
Mama Alto is a classically trained singer and is manuscript-perfect. And yet, there is still more. Add to her extraordinary range (even by jazz standards) her disciplined male and hauntingly beautiful female voice, and you begin to imagine an artist who has the talent and breadth to push even the limits of Jazz. Mama has worked so hard on 'breadth'- emotionally, vocally, and musically. She will surprise you: 'a kick' where you least expect it; a slide-to-pause that adds sub-text; stretching time that pulls at the heart strings and musicianship that invents a new colour palate with graduated and blended tones. Then with passion, Mama connects music to humanity and customises each message.
Miss Chief is Mama's musical director. Her musical virtuosity cements Exquisite: An Evening with Mama Alto as a yardstick for musical cabaret. Credit: Alexis Deaulniers-Lea
Pianist Miss Chief, who has been working with Mama for 7 years, is also her gifted Musical Director. Their on-stage rapport is warm, inspiring and rare. Together, they create musical and lyrical virtuosity, helping the audience to understand jazz music better – to find and feel things in the song that may not have previously been considered. Miss Chief's solo highlights strengthened the entire show: when Miss Chief let loose, the audience was enraptured.
Miss Chief and Mama Alto embody Jazz. Their accompaniments, solos, and highlighted moments are simultaneously intuitive, rehearsed and improvised. Stylistically, Exquisite: An Evening with Mama Alto is the story of Jazz. 'Strange Fruit', part of a Billie Holiday medley, draws us into the dark days of American racial segregation and abuse. Memories from Porgy and Bess are equally as confronting. Ragtime-swing and R&B arrangements were included, as were feature medleys from Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald which highlighted the prolific contribution of Jazz Divas to 20th Century music. Personal and social struggle is intertwined, and Mama too, graciously recognised struggling Australian communities that need support. Compositional selection, exquisite musical arrangements and performance flair skyrocketed this evening as one that honoured past struggles, called for unity and affirmed that people can, must and will find their voice.
Mama Alto declares a gutsy commitment to inclusion. Credit: Trent Pace
As well as taking audiences on an epic jazz journey, Mama paid homage to recent songwriters such as Carole King ('Natural Born Woman') to express the universal and personal themes of support ('I Need You'), identity ('There's A Lady On Stage'), beauty ('Songbird') and love ('The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face'). Her finale 'Bridge over Troubled Water' (Simon and Garfunkel) was introduced with a simple do-good statement: 'Be someone's bridge'. The genius of Mama Alto is musical empowerment.
Mama Alto has found her voice through Jazz, a genre that has lament and reflection; themes of brutality and heart-wrenching grief; as well as a survival spirit and unyielding belief. Mama Alto has accepted the artist's mantle, calling for marriage equality. Exquisite: An Evening with Mama Alto is Mama's own story, keynoted through Jazz.
Venue and artist talk about 'inclusion' and both walk their talk. Mama Alto offers tickets to people from the LGBTIQA community as well as those who are unemployed or struggling, through accessibility discounts on her website. Part of the St Kilda landscape, The National Theatre also offers special passes to umbrella community groups. Not only does inclusion-policy ensure a full house, it enables artistic communities to grow and people to unite. Exquisite: An Evening with Mama Alto received a standing ovation.
Ilana Charnelle is Exquisite's Auslan Interpreter. A talented musician in her own right, she shows yet another string to her artistic commitment. Credit: Alexis Deaulniers-Lea
Ilana Charnelle, who may be known to Weekend Notes readers through her own show 'A Class Act' at The Butterfly Club last year, wore her 'Auslan Interpreter hat' in Exquisite: An Evening with Mama Alto. This is yet another example of Mama's commitment to inclusion and her sophisticated approach to message, art and language. I was impressed by Illana's linguistic and interpretative skills and her artistic sensitivity. Melbourne musicians are uniting communities and affecting real change.
1940s glam. How very jazz. Credit: Alexis Desaulniers-Lea
The show rolled on with a lavish post-show soiree. Live cocktail jazz transported us back to the Jazz era of the 1940s. Mama re-appeared to thank her audience with Whitney Houston's 'I Will Always Love You'. She was equally as spellbinding in this setting as she was in the concert hall, exuding effortless charm in both song and conversation as she mingled with her adoring crowd. 'The Diva exists because of an audience- it is all for the audience' (Mama Alto). Australia- take pride in Mama Alto. She is the heart of Jazz.
Mama's gig calendar for the remainder of 2017 is exciting in terms of theme, content and place. She has performances booked in Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne. Having just finished a season at Melbourne Festival and Marysville Jazz and Blues Festival, you can also see shows in November and December at Chapel Off Chapel, Hares and Hyenas, The Butterfly Club and Melbourne's Sofitel. Check Mama's website for details.