Emma Pask and Bill Risby – Musica Viva Concert

7th March, Armidale Town Hall.

The lovely old Armidale Town Hall was the setting for what was expected to be a top performance from now Australia’s most well-known jazz singer, Emma Pask.

After singing and touring from the age of 16 as part of household name trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist James Morrison’s band for 25 years, Emma finally launched her own solid career after appearing on television’s The Voice. Her CD sales sky-rocketed, and so did her own performing opportunities. Joining Emma on stage was the highly accomplished and very versatile pianist Bill Risby.

The audience was treated to big energy from the beginning, with a highly robust rendition of I Love Being Here with You – a bluesy tune that was first released by its composer Peggy Lee in 1961, and since recorded by many artists, but notably the great blues artist Ernestine Anderson.

Next came a delicate, unhurried colla voce verse that led surprisingly into a scintillating up-tempo scat which eventually led into the well-known Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler classic, Let’s Fall in Love. Bill’s piano solo at this speed was nothing short of highly impressive.

An entertaining intro into the next song which included a little chat in Spanish with a member of the audience, was very entertaining and showed Emma’s ease with connecting to her audience, a quality which has probably rubbed off on her after working with James Morrison for so many years, as he is famous for his long stories between songs. Emma made a point of letting us know she was concerned about whether her Spanish would take her through the bridge of the song, but her romantic rendition was flawless and heartfelt.

Chick Corea, the brilliant and prolific Mexican pianist and composer who passed away two years ago, penned the next song, You’re Everything, for vocalist Flora Purim to sing on his band’s 1973 album “Light as a Feather”. Emma performed the song close to the originally recorded version, with its colla voce opening and flowing into a rollicking samba. A very dynamic performance, ending with an elongated scatting “fiesta”. 

The More I See You (Harry Warren) was dedicated to two special people in Emma’s life – Australian singer/actor Maria Venuti now 83 and who suffered a devastating stroke in 2016, and Emma’s own husband Rodrigo Ocaño Da Silva, who recently a suffered life-changing injury from an accident late 2023. This was a slow ballad version of, and was a beautifully controlled vocal performance despite emotion threatening to take over the throat, with Risby showing his talents as a consummate and sensitive accompanist.

To finish the first half, Emma invited the 15-piece Jazz Vocal Project from the New England Conservatorium and led by jazz artist Sharny Russell, to join her in a specially arranged a cappella version of No More Blues by Antonio Carlos Jobim.

The Jazz Vocal Project joined Emma and Bill again to open the second half of the show, with another of Sharny’s arrangements, a swinging “big-band vocal” style arrangement of George and Ira Gershwin’s S’Wonderful, and this time accompanied by Bill on piano. The group’s delight to be singing jazz scat type phrases with someone like Emma Pask was an absolute thrill. Knowing Sharny is relatively new to Armidale, Emma kindly spoke of her standing in the Australian jazz community as part of her introduction.

For her performance of the classic Tea For Two (1924, Youmans and Caesar) Emma took her time over the delightfully written verse and then then launched into a “put your running shoes on” tempo! Another stunning display of control and virtuosity.

Don Burrows – flautist, clarinettist and saxophonist, and often referred to as the father of Australian jazz – wrote the next tune, titled Whenever, with lyrics written by Emma Pask and James Morrison. Don’s strong affiliation with Brazilian music is obvious in this composition and this was a very lilting rendition with a particularly beautiful solo by Risby.

Emma took the time to tell the story of her experience on The Voice ten years ago, including the promise by one of the judges, international Latin pop sensation Ricky Martin, that she would sing on his next album in Brazil. She is still waiting for that call, but the audience enjoyed her light-hearted and humorous sharing of the story. The first song she sang on that competition was the South American standard Mas Que Nade, and for her very lively performance at this concert she had the audience singing along – O ba O ba O ba! Two modulations of key accompanied by a strong rise in dynamics led to a sparkling finish.

The duo’s final song was a raunchy version of Hallelujah I Love Him So, a song recorded by Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and even Norah Jones. But this pair were not let off lightly and were encouraged back on stage for an encore. They chose one of iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday’s few compositions, God Bless The Child. This was a stunning, deeply musical performance from both of these consummate jazz artists. Emma leading the ending with a melodic line demonstrating where she wanted the piano chords to go, and Bill complying wonderfully.

This was the first concert in a regional tour for this duo, and a good part of their program had not even been rehearsed, just “talked through”. This is the essence of jazz performance. Knowing the language of jazz repertoire and performance, plus years of experience and developed musicality, to be able to instinctively know what needs to happen – on the fly.

Pask and Risby performed this concert as a well-balanced duo, each giving the other the required space to display their unique abilities in musicianship, improvisation, and virtuosity. And they loved Armidale and the good folk of Musica Viva and NECOM who hosted them, so they’ll be back!

Sharny Russell

Head of Contemporary

New England Conservatorium