Groovin’ at the Juke Joint

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A review of the Adelaide Jazz Quintet at Murray Delta Juke Joint, 1 October 2023

South Australia is very lucky indeed to have in its musical ranks one of the top five tenor sax players in all of Australian jazz. He was born Sylvan Elhay in Cairo in 1942 but for decades now, the jazz world has known him as Schmoe. He is not exactly a habitue of the recording studio and does not give concerts in Adelaide nearly often enough, so an appearance by the great Schmoe in Goolwa, just 22 kms distant from home, is an event to be celebrated.

The venue is the estimable Murray Delta Juke Joint, a purpose-built venue on the edge of town that regularly features (mostly) very good blues, jazz and like-minded musicians, usually South Aussies but now and then some top talent from interstate.

A semi-retired computer science lecturer, Schmoe is the key figure in the Adelaide Jazz Quintet alongside a keyboardist, bassist and drummer.

The fifth member of the group is the singer Samantha, a “last of the red hot mamas” type performer with a pleasing gift for nuance, variety and showmanship. The quintet grew now and then with the addition of Samantha’s daughter Jasmine, a pretty 19-year-old with a lustrous voice and obvious passion for tunes made popular decades before her birth.

Another added for a few numbers was a trumpeter introduced only as Alan. Although he managed to lose his way through a couple of tunes, for the most part Alan’s contributions were well-handled and capable, especially when accompanying the singers.

But it was a chance to hear Schmoe that provided the lure for this reviewer. His is a very contemporary sound and his solos brim with fresh ideas, guided by an internal logic that only the very best tenor players can boast. Looking for comparisons to greats of the past, my first thought was Dexter Gordon. Schmoe clearly possesses the big man’s staccato phrasing, his love of 16th note runs and ‘surprise’ notes that elevate his solos from very good to really special.

You get this sort of excellence in Perth listening to Jamie Oehlers or in Melbourne with Julian Wilson. Eric Alexander from Chicago is another who comes to mind but all the above are a great deal younger than Schmoe.

What the hell – Even most New York tenor players aren’t in Schmoe’s league. And all we have to do to savour it is groove over to Goolwa whenever the AJQ is in town.

Rounding out the quintet were John Stephens (drums), Geoff Miller (bass), and Peter Merchant (keyboard). The latter was playing an electronic instrument that sounded tinny at times but mostly did the trick. I’d love to hear him on a proper acoustic instrument – Peter is imaginative, playful and every note is just right.

Standards formed the repertoire, with evergreen offerings from the Gershwin, Ellington and Jobim songbooks standing out. Cry Me A River got an appropriately emotive reading from Jasmine; Samantha shone on It’s A Good Day.

There are many good things to say about life here on the Fleurieu Peninsula’s south coast, but regular access to excellent live music is not one of them. With the Juke Joint and frequent top-notch concerts at Centenary Hall, Goolwa more than carries its share of quality performances in these parts; sadly Victor Harbor is a vast wasteland of musical nothingness.

So here’s to Schmoe and his cohorts. May they play (and tour here) forever.