Speaking with Alex Silver

Thursday, 17 November 2005

Alex Silver 2005With limited fanfare and barely a ripple, a new jazz award was announced last month: the Jann Rutherford Memorial Award – with a focus to ‘assist in the professional development of an outstanding young female jazz musician’. The recipient of the award in its inaugural year was Alex Silver, a trombonist from Sydney.

The award, which honours the late Jann Rutherford, is the latest in a string of laurels received by Silver, who recently undertook a study trip to Switzerland funded by the Australia Council, was a finalist in the James Morrison Scholarship at the Mt Gambier Jazz Festival in 2004, and was awarded the Pan Pacific James Morrison Scholarship in 2000. She has also toured and performed internationally at the Montreux, Vienne, Brienz and Ascona Jazz Festivals, and currently works with numerous ensembles around Sydney, including Rhino Factory and Gervais Koffi and the African Diaspora.

When I spoke to Alex Silver recently it was no surprise to hear that she has known what she wanted for as long as she can remember. She has a very calm and balanced way about her. She started playing at primary school at about age 10 in the school band, has always loved the big band sound and even now gravitates to that in her writing and arranging. “I kind of fell into it by luck more than anything,” she says. “I do it because I love it. As far as what made me love it, I don’t know.”

Speaking to Silver, she sounds like an old hand – like she’s been doing this forever, and in a way she has. One of the first things I noticed about this young trombonist when I first met her a few years ago—even before I heard her play—was… well, she was there – at many of the gigs I attended and many that I didn’t. She was also doing the weekly gig guide at Eastside Radio in Sydney, a community radio station that specialises in jazz programming.

Involvement in the local scene was no accident – it is an important aspect of her life as a musician. Asked why, she is surprised that her regular attendance at local gigs should be noteworthy. In fact, says Silver, she wishes more young musicians would make appearances in the audiences at local venues. And no, her parents didn’t lead her to it. If anything it was the other way around – when she too young to go out to jazz dives on her own, she was dragging them out to hear live music. Eventually they, too, caught the bug. Aside from the opportunity to hear music played by local and visiting musicians, she says “I like to keep up with what’s happening – it’s important particularly for young musicians to support the industry by being part of it and keeping it going.”

She also believes that listening to music is an important part of gaining her own sound, saying it is important to “Listen as much as possible – if not at gigs then at least recorded music. There’s no other way of finding your own voice. The way you play”, she says, “comes from everything you listen to.”

Her own listening choices are guided by a mixture of factors. From “…whatever James Greening is on because he has been important to me musically” through “JJ Johnston and classic players like that”. Recently she has started listening to Roswell Rudd and Ray Anderson because of their different approaches to the trombone and to music. She’s also been listening to guitar players – Kurt Rosenwinkel, and John Scofield. In fact, she says, she’s going through a bit of a ‘Scofield phase’ but wryly admits that “pretty well everybody does that…” She’s also an admirer of the work of guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, who recently toured with Ralph Towner and Slava Grigoryan. After meeting Muthspiel in Switzerland, she was impressed with what he does – including his energy in performance. He toured a year ago and she comments “Two astounding fifty minute sets!”

When I ask her whether she defines herself as a female jazz musician, she thinks carefully for a second and then says she tries not to. She says friends can get ‘really funny’ about it – with a tendency to assume that recognition might be related to her being a woman instead of an up and coming jazz musician with talent. On the other hand, she says, she feels it’s important to actively encourage young female jazz musicians not to give up – particularly in those high school years.

Her own path has always been quite clear to her—I get the sense it would have been hard to make Alex Silver give up—but she certainly acknowledges mentors. Names that spring immediately to mind for her are John Morrison, James Greening and Dan Barnett. And of course Sandy Evans and Judy Bailey. Greening’s teaching has been a great influence for her and she’s smiling as she recounts something that happened at a recent gig “I actually had someone say ‘you must have learned from James Greening’. They recognised something in there.”

The Alex Silver Quartet is a project she’s really enjoying at the moment – this is the first time she’s had a band of her own instead of playing in other people’s and enjoys being in control of the set.

The Alex Silver Quartet is playing for SIMA at the Sound Lounge in Sydney on 23 November and is also appearing at Bennetts Lane on 11 December for the Melbourne Womens International Jazz Festival.

See our gigs section for more information, and maybe you’d also like to visit www.sima.org.au

(c) Miriam Zolin