Joe Chindamo Interview

It is always a surprise to me when I meet a musician of some stature and find out that they care what other people think about them.

Joe Chindamo

On paper, Joe Chindamo has been lauded and awarded for as long as he’s been playing music. He has a fan-base whose loyalty brooks no argument. In February, he completed a tour of three prestigious invitational concerts in Italy, and shortly after returning to Melbourne ‘popped over’ to New Zealand for a concert in Christchurch at The Great Hall Arts Centre, where he moved the audience during Earth Hour by arranging to have the lights turned out and playing ‘Smile’ into the darkness.

He’s been the recipient of fellowships, grants and commissions and has had CDs sitting right up at the pointy end of best-seller charts. Yet what’s bugging him this morning and in the lead up to this interview is a review that he considers lukewarm and therefore offensive. It’s already been the topic of a long conversation we’ve had before getting to the interview.

Standing outside Joe Chindamo’s front door, in a leafy Melbourne suburb, I am a little nervous. If he could be so upset about what a reviewer said or didn’t say, are me and my mini-disk going to be in for a difficult half hour? I haven’t even had a coffee yet. I press the front door bell, kicking myself for not making the time for an espresso before I left home.

My job this morning—though I hardly consider these conversations work in any sense of the word—is fairly straightforward; to talk to Joe about his upcoming collaboration with James Muller at Stonnington Jazz in May. I want to talk to them both about what they are going to do, how the collaboration came about…and to get some insights into what promises to be an exciting concert. James is in New York and won’t be back for a few days, but Joe is right here in Melbourne and he has agreed to a short interview.

And as it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Joe Chindamo is charming this morning. He tries to explain. He’s heard the best compliments come from the opposite ends of the knowledge spectrum: either a direct emotional response that people have to music, because they either like it or they don’t, or else the other end of the spectrum – someone like Michele Campanella the celebrated concert pianist and Liszt exponent who invited Joe to play those concerts in Italy after hearing his music on a CD.

“So the two extremes are fine,” he says, “someone who really knows everything and someone who reacts emotionally… It’s the little bit of knowledge that I have problems with… It’s more complicated than that but at some level, that’s what it seems to be.”

We move on.

“I’m interested, I explain, “in hearing about the collaboration with James Muller that will be happening at Stonnington Jazz – how it came about, and what you have planned. I would never have imagined you two in the same room…”

“Why?” His response is quick and forceful.

I am hesitant and explain clumsily about how I perceive James Muller has a darker sometimes ‘rockier’ and ‘edgier’ energy that I have not previously associated with Joe.

My mini-disk here records the sounds of my voice trailing off nervously and Joe’s receding footsteps on wooden floor boards. He’s leaving the room. “Hang on a minute” he calls cheerily from around the corner. “Are you in a hurry? There’s something I want you to hear.”

When he emerges, he’s carrying the Loose Change CD, ‘Live at the Grainstore’, recorded originally in the late ‘80s and re-released a few years ago on the Vorticity Music label here in Melbourne. Loose Change used to play at the Grainstore when I was working at the Health Commission—just a few short metres up King Street. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard them live… and was even more sure when he put the CD on and I recognised the sounds. Loose Change was Virgil Donati on drums, Steve Hadley on bass, Mark Domoney on guitar and of course Joe playing keyboards.

“This is a kind of a jazz-rock band,” beams Joe over the sounds. “This is my former life… one of my former lives. And don’t forget, I played with Billy Cobham for ten years!”

He plays parts of a track or two more from the CD, his own compositions… “When James was younger he used to come to a lot of gigs with Andrew Gander and me and listen…

“James and I have always talked about doing stuff together. I’ve been a huge admirer of his… our common denominator is Andrew Gander, who is one of the most brilliant people I’ve met; and an incredible drummer. I think he mentored James a lot and James used to turn up to a lot of the gigs that we did. I happen to think that James is one of the great guitarists in the world.” He grins. “Haven’t quite got a repertoire yet, but that’s normal. Of course I’ve got an idea of what we’re doing…”

I comment on the wry aside I read on his website about how even as a youngster he was leaving things up until the last minute.

“Yeah… well if it weren’t for the last minute, my whole life wouldn’t happen! It’s an energy… I think it’s the lift off, and I do lots of things at the 10, 9, 8, 7… stage. Something happens to my brain and my being goes into a different realm and that’s where I’m most creative…

He returns to the conversation at hand. “I’m really excited about playing music with James, and when you ask what we’re going to do, I really won’t know until we start to play. I mean, I could play Happy Birthday with him and we’d do something with it.

“And it’s not about repertoire… John Hoffmann said to me once ‘Joe, you like music more than you like jazz. Jazz is your way of connecting to music’, which is something I agree with… It’s the same with food… I like food, not just sushi! And I do like sushi, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like a well-made lasagne. If you take it to another level, it probably comes from the same source, you know… further and further back playing a reverse Darwinian evolutionary theory, we get back to the essence; to a focal point that has then diverged out to the different styles, the different flavours. The more I play, or the older I get—I don’t know if it’s age or experience or life—I almost don’t hear any difference between jazz and anything else … in the same way as you might have 8 people in the room from various backgrounds, various skin colours, various accents, you get used to it and they are just people and you either like them or you don’t. I have no tolerance for people who put those barriers up.”

“Listen,” he says suddenly, waving his hand at the mini-disk recorder. “Can you turn that off for a minute? Come in here and I’ll show you something.”

I am treated to a mini concert where he demonstrates some of the wide range of playing he enjoys, including samples from the Piano for Kids concert he was going to be performing at Melbourne Jazz. He is still working on the repertoire, but so far it seems to include at least “playing the crap out of the Sesame Street theme,” (his words) and an arrangement of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star that has me rooted to my chair…

Coming back to the kitchen table he returns to our main topic …

“Back to the James Muller collaboration – I would like to play some original compositions … let’s just say that we’re going to meet each other half way. I’m just excited, you know! It’s like going on a date … what will happen!? I might play one note and decide to make the whole thing hard-edged. He might hear one note that I play and decide let’s do Puccini all night.

I played a duet concert with Paul Grabowsky in Brisbane, which I really enjoy… we’ve played a couple of duet concerts during the past year…and we were playing all this stuff and having such a good time just bouncing off each other harmonically. I said ‘why don’t we just throw the music away and just improvise the whole night’, which we did. So the whole concept changed just like that”, he clicks his fingers. “I’ll turn up with a book and I’m sure James will turn up with his book and we’ll just choose some stuff. I might even bring along the accordion!”

“Okay,” I say. “You’re on. I expect you to bring it now.”

He smiles, enigmatic. “Perhaps I will.”

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Joe Chindamo Meets James Muller is on at Stonnington Jazz on Wednesday 21 May on a night where audiences will also be treated to Mark Isaacs’ Resurgence band. The full Stonnington Jazz program is available here.

Photo: courtesy of Stonnington Jazz