Q&A with Sam Bates – 2011 NJA Finalist

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?

From as far back as I can remember I was always enthusiastic about music. My dad played trumpet in the Navy reserve band, and my mum and older brother were pretty musically minded as well. Between the three of them I was exposed to stuff like Aretha Franklin and Paul Simon, through to Wynton Marsalis and Stravinsky. Having said that, I certainly wasn’t immune to those great 80s pop anthems such as ‘Enter The Danger Zone’ or ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’. I distinctly remember drumming along to Mental As Anything’s ‘Live It Up’ played on repeat. All Day.

As far as defining moments go – a friend at school sat me down and played me Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Chile’. I couldn’t believe my ears! About a year later a happening drummer, Darren Muller came to my school to do a workshop/performance with his band. It was right then and there that I made the decision to pursue a career in music.

Which musicians (jazz or otherwise) have been your greatest influences? What about them stood or stands out for you?

Many of the musicians I met while studying at the Brisbane Conservatorium were very influential including Ken Edie, John Hoffman , Simon Barker and Scott Tinkler. My close friendship with bass player Eugene Romaniuk also had a huge impact on me. He got me into Ahmad Jamal. Enough said.

Apart from Max, Tony, Elvin, Roy, Philly, Art Blakey and Jack who are all unavoidable, I like Sonny Payne, Ed Thigpen and Vernel Fournier, as well as anyone who recorded with Ellington and Monk. My favourite modern guys are Tain, Brian Blade, Eric Harland, Chris Dave, Gerald Cleaver, Marcus Gilmore and Tyshawn Sorey. I could keep going.

All these musicians are part of a tradition, but sound like the unique individuals that they are.

When composing or arranging, where do you get your inspiration?

Generally I compose at the piano, but it’s hard to say where my inspiration comes from. Charles Mingus says his ability to write music comes from God, but his ability to play the bass comes from hard work. Obviously I’d never compare myself to Mingus, but I get what he’s saying about composing being a bit mysterious. Imagining the sound of the band performing my tune is often inspiring.

What’s your favourite place to play or practise?

My favourite place to play is generally an acoustic environment. Small clubs, old halls (Melbourne is full of them) or a lounge room with high ceilings. I live in a one-bedroom apartment so I practise at my parents place. After years of conditioning they can squeeze in an afternoon nap while I’m wailing away in the next room. Unbelievable!

What does the Wangaratta Jazz Festival represent for you?

I love the Wang experience. It’s a great hang, and there’s always plenty of heavy music to check out. It’s definitely become part of the Australian jazz landscape. I’ll never forget hearing Nils Wogram with Jochen Rueckert on drums in 2007. So Svinging.

What are you listening to now?

I’m listening to Michael Formanek ‘The Rub and Spare Change’, Steve Lehman ‘On Meaning’, Ramsey Lewis ‘Hang On Ramsey’, John Lennon ‘Imagine’ and Beethoven Symphony No. 1


See other NJA finalists from this and previous years >>>>

The National Jazz Awards semi-finals and final rounds will be held at the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues, October 28-31. Festival Passes are available for blues only venues or all venue access. Purchase your early bird tickets now from www.wangarattajazz.com