Each year since 2005, in the month leading up to the jazz festival in Wangaratta, Miriam Zolin interviews the finalists in the National Jazz Awards. The awards are decided at Wangaratta in a series of heats culminating in a finals performance on the Sunday of the festival. Wangaratta Jazz festival this year runs from Friday 28 to Monday 31 October.
The National Jazz Awards have been presented at the festival since it began in 1990 and were designed to contribute to the development and recognition of young jazz and blues musicians up to the age 35. The Awards have become a much anticipated highlight of the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues.
This year’s top ten finalists are: Ben Falle, 25, Perth | Graham Hunt, 27, Sydney | James Waples, 28, Sydney | Tim Firth, 29, Sydney | Hugh Harvey, 30, Melbourne | Evan Mannell, 32, Sydney | Sam Bates, 33, Melbourne | Craig Simon, 34, Melbourne | Dave Goodman, 34, Sydney | Cameron Reid, 34, Sydney
When did you start playing jazz and why? For example, was there a ‘moment’ when it came to you as a calling or vocation?
Well, to answer this, I need to explain what I mean when I use the term ‘jazz’. Jazz, to me, is an ‘inside job’ and it’s really quite subjective. What it is to me, firstly, is an enthusiasm, a yearning and a motivation to get behind the drums as much as possible and to do the best I can to master the instrument. This means that I have to do all the work necessary to exercise absolute clarity in thinking and perception as well as in the coordinated use of my body over finite periods of time. Secondly, it’s the internal feeling that can be encapsulated by saying that when you’re playing in a band and the music is ‘on’ or you’re ‘in the zone’, you’re swinging. It’s the same in rock music: when you’re ‘on’, you’re rocking! All I remember is these two feelings beginning to grow inside as I gained more and more experience playing. A constant and consistent challenge is presented as one strives to inculcate the idea of swinging and / or rocking into one’s life after deciding to become a professional musician.
Although there’s absolutely no question that playing jazz drums is my vocation, I don’t think there was ever a moment in my life when I woke up and thought ‘gee, I’m now I’m playing jazz, whereas before I wasn’t’. All I’m doing is striving toward the realisation of an ideal. Whether or not I achieve this realisation is inconsequential as I’m thoroughly digging the process. Sometimes I play and I feel invincible. Other times I feel as though everything I’ve done in my life has been a complete waste of time. In both cases, how I feel doesn’t really matter when an audience is involved. What matters is how it sounds to them, no matter how I felt about it as I played. I try to feel nothing when I play anyway and to just listen. I’ll always remember the complete elation I felt when I first played a set of drums. I also remember the feeling of responsibility that came about once I decided to answer to my ‘vocation’ and to be a professional musician. These feelings continue to grow inside me by the day and I love it. To me, the essence of what jazz is all about is in there somewhere.
Which musicians (jazz or otherwise) have been your greatest influences? What about them stood or stands out for you?
Andrew Gander is one of the world’s greatest drummers and I feel extremely fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to listen to his music live and on record, and to get to know him personally as a friend for most of my drumming life. This has had possibly the greatest influence on me. Andy has the most exquisite touch and swing feel of any drummer I’ve ever heard. The expansive immensity of his improvisational musical vocabulary and syntax can sometimes be daunting and overwhelming and I feel that personally and intellectually he’s one of the most articulate, intelligent, genuine and hilarious people I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet. I’ve heard him play in just about every kind of musical context and I’ve paid attention to the consummate aplomb with which he applied his musicality to each of those situations. I really miss him these days. Thank goodness for contemporary technology that enables us to stay in touch via social networking platforms these days, such as Facebook.
Professionally, I’m influenced by the people I work with in just about every situation. People who spring to mind immediately as being most influential are Mike Nock, the members of Ten Part Invention, Matt Keegan, Cameron Undy, Cameron Deyell, Phil Stack, James Morrison, Matt McMahon, Sean Wayland and James Muller. I look to each of these people for guidance, even if only through listening to them play. I’m constantly learning a lot from them about how to and how not to conduct myself musically. I think I might be conflating the term ‘influence’ with ‘inspiration’ here, but to me, if there’s no inspiration, there’s no influence. I’m most inspired by these people and so they must have influenced me the most, whether they know it or not.
When composing or arranging, where do you get your inspiration?
Inspiration comes to me with the need to meet deadlines. I’m not one of those people who sits at the piano fancifully and romantically sculpting pieces into existence in my spare time. It’s usually because I have no spare time that I find myself cranking material out to meet with compositional deadlines in the first place! I like this kind of challenge. Schönberg says that there is no one time or place where you can actually view a composer ‘composing’ and I find this to be true. Stuff just happens and either you have the skill and patience to flesh it out or you don’t. The late Neale Sandbach commissioned me to put together an album’s worth of music with my own band and with only three months notice in early 2002 for Jim McLeod’s Jazztrack on ABC Classic FM. At that time I had no band and only two tunes to my name. So I put in some calls, chained myself to the piano with a room full of manuscript, sharpened up forty pencils, stocked even more erasers and set to work. I nearly had a nervous breakdown by the end of those three months, but I am happy to have been put under such pressure as it equipped me with the tools to better-handle similar projects that have arisen since.
I’m fascinated with the potential for developing new forms and structures in music, particularly by means of enfolding complex rhythmic and polymetric superstructures into the overall form of the piece in ways that are not immediately perceptible to the listener. I’m not particularly good at it yet, but I enjoy chipping away at it, so perhaps one day I’ll be happy with the results. Sometimes just hearing someone play can give me an idea for putting an entire project together. It really is just hard work and time spent that produces results for me, whether I enjoy it or not.
What’s your favourite place to play or practise?
I don’t have a favourite place to play or practise. I have favourite kinds of places to play and practise. For playing, I love to play in well-appointed, properly managed and maintained recording studios. There really is no better place to play because all the sonic qualities of such spaces are optimised and everyone involved is usually very respectful and professional in the way they interact and share similar visions and goals for the task at hand. Again, there are deadlines involved here and this makes for productivity.
Playing live can be problematic for a number of reasons. I love to play my own drums because my technique is geared to require very specific kinds of responses from the instrument when I strike it. My drums give me such a response. I also prefer to use what seems to be a larger drumset than what most cats are playing around town these days because of the melodicism it offers me. Some rooms however are too small to allow me to set up my drums and others are so acoustically inadequate that I don’t feel like playing there at all. Cameron Undy’s new Venue 505 in Surry Hills is a great room to play in!
Often these days when I travel I’m playing on some loaner or rental set of drums that is usually not to my specifications or that is not adequately maintained to be an instrument capable of producing musical art. This is not the case in Japan though. I love playing in Japan because everyone involved over there pays attention to detail and really seems to care about your comfort as a performer. Generally, I love certain theatre settings that have a nice, dry sound for the drums and that utilise a large enough space to cope with a broad variety of dynamic playing, from extremely loud, to extremely soft, but not too large. Such rooms are rare, but I think The Studio at Sydney Opera House comes closest to being the best in my experience. Some concert halls across Asia were astonishingly fun to play in too.
Despite all the potential difficulties, it’s more about overcoming adverse conditions and achieving a collective feeling of connectedness within the particular ensemble I’m performing with at any given time. This is what makes performances enjoyable for an audience, and the more dedicated and appreciative people who are there to hear it, the better. My intent is for each performance to be my favourite, no matter where it is, and then to move on forget about it. When I practise though, I practise better when I have the absolute assurance that not a single person is listening.
What does the Wangaratta Jazz Festival represent for you?
The Wangaratta Jazz Festival represents challenge for me. I’ve been a very active drummer in Sydney and around the country with a certain kind of jazz bent since 1995 and yet I’ve only ever performed at Wangaratta once as a professional since then, and that was with the Judy Bailey Trio in 2001. At the times I was performing in bands led by Mike Nock, Mark Isaacs or Dale Barlow, each of whom are regulars in Wangaratta, none of those bands were really traveling around the country and most of the work we did was in Sydney or at other festivals. So, a challenge that Wangaratta represents for me is to put together my own ensemble that is busy enough playing music of high enough quality to perform on the bill at the festival there one day. That would be a dream come true for me!
Wangaratta represents challenge in another area for me because the only other two times I performed there were for the heats and finals in the National Jazz Awards in 1997 and 2004. Both of those events represented the kind of compositional and arranging challenges I mentioned earlier because it was very important to me to perform original material where possible within the guidelines of the competition. I came second in 1997 and third in 2004. Although I had a great time performing on both occasions, I really was underprepared in 2004, but I had just come out of a very strange period in my life where you could say I didn’t really have it together at all. I’m in a much better situation these days: I just completed my doctorate and I very recently got married. So here I am challenging myself once again as a finalist in 2011; my third and final opportunity to perform in the National Jazz Awards because of my age. I really am looking forward to playing my arrangements and compositions with the great band that’s been put together to accompany the finalists this year and I’m really only going there to enjoy playing, composing and arranging as much as I possibly can.
What are you listening to now?
Right now I’m listening to the cacophony taking place in and around the lounge at San Francisco International Airport as my wife and I wait for our flight to New York this afternoon – we’re on our honeymoon. Other than that, I’m not listening to anything in particular. We heard Donny McCaslin‘s band in LA the other night with Uri Caine, Fima Ephron and Mark Guiliana. That was pretty cool. When we arrived here in San Fran we happened upon the Stanton Moore trio around the corner from our apartment at The Independent. That was an amazing show. Kind of life-changing for me! We heardEliane Elias with her Brazilian quartet last night at Yoshi’s and Marc Johnson was on bass. I’ve loved his playing for years, but to sit ten feet in front of him and to watch him comport himself musically on stage was really an eye opener. He’s one of the greats of our time, that’s for sure. We bought all their CDs and we’ve been enjoying listening to them in the car.