In 2009, extempore journal spoke to five Australian jazz musicians, asking them all the same set of questions… Kristin Berardi, Vince Jones and Katie Noonan were in the group we interviewed and this year all three of these outstanding Australian musicians are opening the Melbourne International Jazz Festival with a gala concert called ‘The Way You Look Tonight’, billed as an evening of great jazz standards.
We’ve reprinted three of the five interviews … and you can see more information about extempore Issue 3 over on the extempore website >
Vince Jones first grabbed the attention of most of us in the early Eighties. His first album, Watch What Happens, was released in 1981, and the combination of his voice, his trumpet and the man behind them has always made for a unique (but swinging) listening experience. He has found considerable success here and in the USA and Europe. I don’t think there has ever been a sense that labels sit very well in descriptions of Vince’s work. I remember hearing him regularly in the Nineties at The Basement and knowing that a Vince Jones concert was never just about the music, while being very much about the music. He ‘shushed’ us when we were noisy, and gave us songs and rambles with strong political messages. I think most of us were there for the music—does anybody go to a Vince Jones concert for the political ideology?—but it is a mark of the man that he made those beliefs so much part of his performance. Vince is widely acknowledged in the local scene as a mentor and a wonderful musician. He chose to answer our questions by email.
extempore: Do you consider yourself a jazz singer?
vince: Jazz is a very broad term these days. In the true meaning of the word, I’m close to what you might call a jazz singer. Playing the trumpet has taught me much about singing jazz. The jazz singer needs to have a broader harmonic security than the rock or soul singer. He or she needs to know the chord tones of every bar of every song they are singing. They need to know not only the basic harmony of the melody they are singing; the jazz singer also has to know many different patterns which work over the chord changes they are singing—not unlike a horn player.
Then, as your skills develop, you need to be able to make up improv patterns on the spot from the chord changes of the song you are singing.
I would love to be a specialist jazz singer, but in this country I would struggle getting work because there aren’t enough jazz listeners in Oz. That may sound like a cop-out; I love singing with the band, but in the end we can turn the simplest melody into an interesting composition that could be called jazz.
extempore: What are the challenges and the enjoyable aspects of working with standards and original songs?
vince: I was brought up listening to standards. My father wouldn’t let us listen to Elvis or any rock music. The household diet was classical, jazz or folk music. I think in many ways that was a good thing; if you were brought up on ABBA or commercial rock it would be like thinking that only 10 words could be made from the alphabet.
From an early age I watched my father arrange songs for his big and small bands. He was a piano player, and loved arranging music to suit the chops of his fellow jazz-loving brass band players. To get them to swing wasn’t easy.
This I think planted the seed in me to rearrange songs—to change them; to breathe life into songs that had become tired through disrespect. I love the timelessness of folk songs; the lyrics are essential, pure in motive, humane, political and full of love.
Ideas for original songs are pouring out of my head all day long. I was born in the wrong era—I should have been an in-house songwriter for a recording or publishing company; but sadly times have changed. When writing a song I try to make it as beautiful as I possibly can; when I pick a standard I try to pick the most beautiful songs that I can find. (Sometimes it can take many years for the beauty of a song to unfold itself over you.)
If beauty is your motive then it doesn’t really matter if you’re playing an original song or a standard or a folk song.
extempore: Can you describe the ideal relationship between a singer and the band?
vince: I’m a late starter when it comes to love, particularly in relation to bands. As a singer, when you first start out you get told you can be a star; this is the advice given to you by potential management and record company people. You become removed from the band in plight. The record company tells you you’re going to win the lottery because they’ll rig it your way, but only if you don’t eat the apple on the tree. As far back as I can remember I’ve wanted to be part of a band, but sadly as a lead singer you get offers that confuse you and one can get thrust into a singer/backing band situation.
Luckily I didn’t go that way.
I think making music is like painting a mural, painted by five or however many musicians. I’ve seen painters do this and more often than not the project fails—usually because of egos clashing. We musicians have to learn these traps, otherwise there is no band and therefore no music.
For the band to work the chemistry needs to have, first of all, the purest form of democracy, then empathy then of course enjoying each others’ playing or singing. Mix it all together with one last ingredient—LOVE—then you get stoichiometry. [Stoichiometry is the mathematics behind chemistry]. Examples of bands that do this are Weather Report, Old and New Dreams, The Beatles, and The Band.
I’d like to take this chance to thank my early bands, those wonderful people who helped me (or should I say put up with me?) for all those years. I constantly lament about how I could have been more giving to them and to the music. To play with people you can learn from is wonderful. I’m learning lots from Matt (McMahon), Simon (Barker), Ben (Waples) and all the other great musos I’m privileged to play with.
extempore: Do you believe that performing artists have an obligation to address wider issues of the human condition?
vince: It all started at the age of 18, knowing if they don’t stop the war in Vietnam then I could be heading bush for a few years because there’s no way I’m going to kill another man.
I had read Tolstoy’s book, The Kingdom of God is Within You. He speaks about nonresistance to evil by violence, which Gandhi later coined as ‘passive resistance’.
We’ve all seen how powerful a force this can be. Fortunately the protests we all took part in changed the government and rid us of the war-mongering conservatives of the time—for a time. Having a win under our belts, I realised that people power is the only way things will change for the better. What a great opportunity, I would think to myself, to express my disdains through talking at gigs. I realised you could, with only a few well-chosen words, change the face of history—or in my case a ripple in my diary. When (Rupert) Murdoch got control of a large slice of the media pie I knew our days on earth were numbered. He introduced us to the Bush era and
manufactured our consent to accept war as the solution in Iraq. Bush could not have done it without News Limited (I hold Rupert Murdoch responsible for the war in Iraq). He can make a truth a lie and a lie a truth; this is evil at its purest.
I haven’t been very active of late though; the main reason is that the problems may now be too big to address. Issues like population explosion and global warming, environmental vandalism and downright greed could have been addressed 20 years ago, but I feel now it’s too late.
I’m wise enough to see that this may be the order of things; that man shall render himself extinct. If that’s what he wants, fair enough; but does he know how painful it’s going to be? I feel we should all… Let’s go out and have a good time listening to jazz, immerse ourselves in art, bask in harmony, forget about the inevitable. The audience doesn’t need me to ruin their night with an anti-Murdoch anti-IDF pro-Chief Seattle rave. Or do they? If there is something you believe in that can protect others or creatures from suffering, by all means go out and help them.