Noel Blencowe says CERES’ present day success was borne of innovation and hard work.

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A musical odyssey from Taste to The JazzLab

Michael Tortoni’s long career has brought him back to Brunswick, where it all began

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Michael Tortoni at The JazzLab in Leslie Street.

A musical odyssey from Taste to The JazzLab

Michael Tortoni’s long career has brought him back to Brunswick, where it all began

Andra Jackson
Monday, October 2, 2023


HE Brunswick that a teenage Michael Tortoni moved into back in 1974 was a world apart from the hip, buzzing area with its upmarket restaurants that it is today.

“It was pretty working class and rundown, very multicultural. It wasn’t the sought-after destination that it is now,” he recalls. Up until then, he had been living at home in Braybrook with his parents.

The move to Brunswick was prompted in part because his sister wanted to move out of home and asked him to share a house. It also seemed a good move because by then the 18-year-old Tortoni was playing electric bass in a rock band, Taste that was mainly based in Brunswick. Its drummer Virgil Donati and guitarist Ken Murdock lived in Brunswick and guitarist Joey Amenta lived nearby.

As he shifted into an affordable house in Glenlyon Road, Tortoni could hardly have envisaged that almost 50 years later he would still be helping put Brunswick on the musical map with The JazzLab, the jazz club he owns in Leslie Street – one of the venues for this month’s annual Melbourne International Jazz Festival.

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Tortoni remembers that Brunswick back in the mid-1970s had one quality that it retains today: “It was always very lively with an interesting mix of people”.

At that stage, musicians were drawn to the suburb because of its cheaper accommodation, as were students because it was close to Melbourne University, he says.

He finds it hard to recall if there were many music venues.

“No, not like today. There were pubs and there was a rock pub in Sydney Road that Taste played in. But venues like Howler and The Brunswick Ballroom weren’t around then.”

Taste rehearsed in a house in Whitby street, Brunswick West and later in Donati’s garage. “We were a true garage band,” Tortoni jokes.

The disadvantage of that garage was that Donati’s dad, an organ player, would feel obliged to come out and issue unwelcome musical instructions.

There were also some complaints from neighbours. “We worked around them. Eventually as we had recording success and we signed to Warner Records, we rehearsed at Wick’s studios in Brunswick.”

Labeled “glam-pop” the band appeared on Countdown and had a number of hit singles. Taste broke up in 1979 but later reformed in 2005 and continues to record and tour.

Taste performing on national television in their mid-1970s heyday, with Michael Tortoni on bass.

Meantime, Tortoni moved on, swapping to the double bass and studying classical music at the Victoria College of the Arts. He also took up jazz. The business astute Tortoni then found a job in a stockbroker’s office to learn about the world of finance and in 1990 bought a run down premise in a back lane off Little Lonsdale Street called Bennetts Lane. He put two years into renovating it and opening it as Bennetts Lane Jazz Club.

Tortoni had stayed living in Brunswick, moving to a property in Austral Avenue. But with the opening of Bennetts Lane, he moved into the rooms above the club for the next 20 years, also playing occasional jazz gigs downstairs. The iconic club was where Prince once famously, dropped by to play a legendary late night set. Lonely Planet dubbed it the world’s best jazz club.

By 2014 Tortoni was feeling jaded and bought a property in Leslie Street, Brunswick, “as a place where I could meditate after my Bennetts Lane experience. I just used that room as therapy, I wasn’t sure if I would open another jazz club”.

But after selling Bennetts Lane to a property developer in 2015, that is what he did two years later and with a décor and layout borrowed from Bennetts Lane. Every piece of furniture, right down to the long bar, was transplanted from the CBD to Brunswick.

Tortoni didn’t see it as a challenge to draw jazz patrons to Brunswick. “To me, it was the natural place to go to if it [the club] wasn’t going to be in the city.”

Initially even the new club’s manager Jeremy Jankie who had started working at Bennetts Lane when he was 18, was skeptical, Tortoni says.

But he says: “I felt that was where I want to be.”

Its location proved an advantage when COVID hit “because the city was a nightmare”.

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“To me, [Brunswick] was the natural place to go to if [the club] wasn’t going to be in the city.”

The club’s appeal has grown as Tortoni expected: “Now after six years, it has really taken the place of Bennetts Lane in doing what Bennetts Lane was doing.”

The club has had to add Saturday and Sunday afternoons to its nightly programs. The laid-back Jankie, a master of understatement keeps it running smoothly. Tortoni also owns adjacent property that could be transformed into a second jazz room similar to Bennetts Lane should the demand warrant it in the future. In the meantime that building is rented out to a psychologist specialising in transgender work. 

The club has tapped into a community need for schools with jazz programming to find a venue for recitals and concerts.  

As he talks, Tortoni has weekend bookings from Coburg High School and Strathmore Secondary College and The Melbourne Youth Orchestra. “For students with natural talent, it is a great environment for them to be in because they end up coming back and watching professionals play. It is a good cycle to start.”

Now married with two children, Tortoni is also the artistic director of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. It was in that role that he visited New York earlier this year for the Winter Jazz Festival and saw Chicago trumpeter Marquis Hill who is performing at The JazzLab for the festival on October 23 and 24.  

“He is a contemporary classic jazz musician who brings all his modern influences like hip-hop and neo-soul and R&B and very energetic and great musicians that he plays with.”

Michael Tortoni’s Melbourne International Jazz Festival tips 

The JazzLab in Brunswick is a major venue for this year’s festival. 

Michael Tortoni’s tip? “I think that Nduduzo Makhathini will be amazing,’’ he says of the South African pianist who was the first keyboardist from his country to be signed to the prestigious Blue Note recording label. He performs at The JazzLab with his trio on October 28 and 29. Canadian trumpeter also Ingrid Jensen has a four-night residency at the club.  

Australian trombonist Shannon Barnett, now based in Germany with the WRD Big Band in Cologne, performs with her German Quartet on October 26. 

Brunswick resident and one of Australia’s most creative jazz singers, Michelle Nicolle, has just performed at the Sydney Opera House with the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. She performs at The JazzLab on October 27 with her quartet.  

Other festival acts at The JazzLab are Australian Paris based pianist Daniel Gassin, Netherlands’ Marike van Dijk Quintet, and local saxophonist Cheryl Durongpisitkul who is debuting her composition, a suite for a 12-member improvising ensemble. The club also holds late night jams beginning at 11pm for the duration of the festival. 

The festival’s headline acts include genre-defying singer Chaka Khan, singer Lisa Simone, daughter of the late Nina Simone, the UK’s Go Go Penguin, and New Orleans’ Hot 8 Brass Band in a street parade. The festival runs from October 20 to 29. 

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