Serious Fun: The Life and Music of Mike Nock

Serious Fun: The Life and Music of Mike Nock (Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2010)
Norman Meehan
Review by John Shand

Serious Fun coverSerious Fun is the perfect title for a biography of Mike Nock. So often the pianist’s music has wedded seriousness and playfulness, beauty and fun in equal measure. Nock’s story may not be quite one of rags to riches: few jazz stories end in riches, whatever garb they began in. But it is a boondocks-boy-made-good tale, an against-the-odds tale, and therefore one with abundant potential to engross the reader, independently of the engaging incidents and anecdotes; independently of the quality of the leg-work and writing.

In fact Norman Meehan has done a splendid job of researching his book, seeking out figures from Nock’s past for interviews that spangle his narrative with anecdotes and perspectives other than his own and his subject’s. Along the way Meehan, who is a New Zealand pianist/composer, and who has previously written a book on Paul Bley, extracts some fascinating insights. The brilliant American guitarist John Abercrombie, for instance, offers the monumental praise that it was Nock’s distinctive, finely-crafted compositions that made him want to compose, himself. He also attributes Michael White’s work with The Fourth Way, Nock’s seminal jazz-rock band, as his inspiration for including a violin in his own quartet. Other musicians from Nock’s time in the US whom Meehan tracked down for comment include White, guitarist Bill Connors, bassists Rick Laird, Ron McClure and Bruce Cale (who also resided there for some years), and drummers Eddie Marshall and Rakalam Bob Moses. From Nock’s earlier and later Antipodean adventuring interviewees include drummers Chris Karan, Hamish Stuart and Roger Sellers, saxophonist Tim Hopkins, trumpeter Kim Paterson and bassist Cameron Undy.

Obviously Meehan finds Nock’s heyday near the pinnacle of the US scene more worthy of detailed coverage than his subsequent quarter-century back in Australia. In fact five times as much space is afforded what is a similar block of time. There was, indeed, plenty to write about of Nock’s 24 years in the US, when he was routinely working with players of the calibre of Abercrombie, Tony Williams, Sam Rivers, Elvin Jones, Dave Holland, John Scofield, John Handy and Yusef Lateef. Serious Fun is replete with colourful yarns, especially regarding the lifestyle and music of the heady days of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Although Nock’s membership of Yusef Lateef’s band saw him accepted by the African-American jazz community, racial issues still arose, including in The Fourth Way’s mixed-race make-up. For instance harassment at the border when the band drove from Switzerland to Germany was attributed by the band’s manager to racism, although Nock’s colourful recounting is probably right to ascribe it just as much to drug possession and hippy attire.

The writing becomes less enthusiastic once Nock is ensconced in Sydney and is predominantly playing with locals. Whether this is a New Zealander’s antipathy towards Australia surfacing (and I say this as one born in New Zealand), whether Meehan was just less excited by the last 25 years of the pianist’s career, or whether he ran out of time and/or space to cover it thoroughly, I do not know.

In fact Nock has produced some of his finest work in this time, regardless of the fact that his collaborators may be unknown internationally. He has also confronted and resolved technical issues with his playing that are not touched on, which seems odd, given Meehan’s predilection for delving into matters of pianism when discussing his recorded performances. The last quarter-century has also arguably been the most important era for Nock’s writing, and Meehan does devote a section to discussing the man’s compositions. The relevance of the New Zealand landscape to Nock’s music is raised, specifically the omnipresence of water – whether ocean, lake or river – and it is credibly proposed that many pieces contain what the composer calls `the flowingness of water’.

Further examination of Nock’s composing occurs as Meehan pauses in his narrative to play critic with each album Nock has recorded, whether as leader, co-leader or sideman. Sadly, many of these have never been re-released on CD, and just tracking down some of the LPs must have required considerable dedication. The author is far from sycophantic in assessing the albums, and his accounts give a dependable idea of the music, even if he is a good rather than an outstanding critic.

There are some structural oddities, such as covering Nock’s use of and attitudes to synthesisers and electronics in two different sections of the book, and, generally, more diligent editing could have avoided duplication of some information.

This is much more a biography of Nock the musician than the man. The pianist’s assorted relationships are touched upon, but little more, and most people will find the balance appropriate. In an era which future historians may come to call The Age of Celebrity, too many biographies dig deeper and deeper into the mire, and little illumination ever radiated from a black hole.

Nock returned to Australia in 1985 primarily to teach. Inevitably his attitudes to jazz education evolved over the years, given that he was testimony that a formal education was unnecessary to perform at the highest level. If this made him sceptical of any assembly-line approach, he came to see the benefit of institutions in an era when opportunities to learn on the job had vastly diminished.

Once back here Nock became aware of his implicit value as a role model to young jazz musicians on both sides of the Tasman: living proof that a small fish from Jazz Nowhere Land could succeed in the biggest pond of all. He makes the fascinating observation that the key difference between a top US player and a New Zealander is that where the former plays one note, the latter will play three or four. `There’s an expectation there – you feel the need to play more – the culture makes us want to try to “make it better”,’ he says. He even applies this criticism to his own music. Were it ever true, his performances over recent years and his recent, gem-like An Accumulation of Subtleties album (FWM, 2010) comprehensively demonstrate that he has marched well beyond excessive garrulousness.

He also points to the tall-poppy Syndrome in both Australia and New Zealand, and how the supposedly heinous sin of standing out in the crowd makes artists self-conscious about their work. Elsewhere he emphasises the importance he places on every opportunity to play, and suggests that one of his particular talents is finding the right musicians to realise a project, a process which `relies on the interconnectedness of everybody’. `That is music’s great strength,’ he says, `and our society has kind of given up on that. It used to be a tribal thing – all the stories were told through music – nowadays it’s all changed.’ Pity, that.

Besides being a pleasure for Nock’s fans, the book is a must-read for musicians of any calibre. It contains numerous pearls of wisdom into process and attitude, with the pianist especially stressing the importance of listening profoundly while playing.

For all its successes, Nock’s career has by no means been a steady upward incline. There was the illness that dramatically cut short his tenure with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (his occupation of the piano chair sandwiched between Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea). Then there was job offer from Sonny Rollins he felt obliged to decline out of a sense of duty to fulfil a minor alternative commitment. Another `what if?’ moment came when he shied away from going on the road with the stellar band of Michael Brecker, George Mraz and Al Foster with whom he recorded his acclaimed 1978 album, In Out and Around (Timeless). Many musicians pay tribute to Nock’s innate adventurousness, however, which remains entirely undiminished at the age of 70. He attributes his failure to become an international star (in jazz terms) partly to a restless artistic nature that always tended to see him moving in a new direction by the time the previous recording was released. But he would have it no other way.

Eight pages of performance photographs, candid snaps, posed shots and album covers are included, and this admirable book is accompanied by a DVD of Geoff Cawthorn’s 1993 documentary on Nock, helping to improve the value of the weighty $50 price tag.

Read a review of An Accumulation of Subtleties

Or read an old article by Miriam Zolin (nearly published in Downbeat!) from 2003 ‘Mike Nock and the cure for what ails you’

If you’d like to read interviews with Mike Nock in extempore, you need Issue 1. The photo on this page is available in Issue 5. See how to purchase a back issue here >