By Phil Sandford
The Kinetic Jazz Festival, together with its satellite performances, has established itself as a significant part of the Sydney jazz and theatre scene.
The Kinetic approach is characterised by the interaction of jazz with other art forms such as theatre and dance; all-acoustic performances; the development of a community of performers across several generations; the use of the Stuart and Sons grand piano; and the establishment of the Kinetic Jazz Orchestra (KJO) under the direction of visiting composer/conductor Mike Gibbs.
It is an approach that stems from decades of study and experience by the three artistic co-directors, Graham Jones, Jepke Goudsmit and Lee McIver, and has its roots in the revolutionary developments in music and dance in Europe in the opening years of the 20th century and the development of American modern dance and jazz.
An apprenticeship in dance
As a student at Sydney University from 1959 to 1965, Jones spent his time outside biochemistry lectures ‘soaking up the Renaissance atmosphere of the time – political activism, protest movements, feminism, free love, the Beat Generation, jazz and poetry, theatre’.
A trumpet player, he teamed up with saxophonist Don Reid, now a member of the KJO. However, when a friend asked him to dance in a jazz ballet he had written Jones started taking dance lessons. Reid and pianist Barry Conyngham wrote the score and the show was performed at the Footbridge Theatre in 1964. That was the start of Jones’ career in dance and theatre.
‘I never looked back after that’, he says. ‘I kept on with the dance classes and found that American modern dance, not ballet, was a wonderful vehicle to express contemporary issues.’
Jones was inspired by several American modern dance companies that toured Australia at this time, including the Alvin Ailey Company, an Afro-American group who had a blues band playing with them live, and the JosLimon Company.
Jones met Ronnie Arnold, an Afro-American dancer who came out to Australia with West Side Story and decided to stay, and worked with his small company from 1965 to 1970, supporting himself with some work as a scientist and teacher. ‘I gave Arnold some Gil Evans records and he created ballets for them. I remember dancing in those pieces.’
Jones feels that during the 20th century the Americans turned everything upside down with dance. ‘From the First World War to the mid-sixties you’ve got a 50-year period where the Americans developed, parallel to jazz, an American vocabulary of dance called American modern dance. It was based on a very eclectic mix of dance forms that they explored and brought into dance: the Asian technique, the American Indian dance, the black experience.
‘To do that they had to create their own vocabulary because you can’t express modern ideas with a technique that was created for the courts of Europe. It’s an anachronistic language when used to express modern ideas. You need a language like rap or hip or the talk of the streets in Harlem.
‘So by the 1960s you have this rich tradition of dance in the United States. You also had numerous universities teaching dance and men were dancing in large numbers.
‘During that period there were some wonderful American male dancers leading companies, such as JosLimon. When you saw a man at the age of 50 dancing Othello, a modern dance version, that made sense to me. I wanted to still be dancing when I was 50 and dancing in parts like that, not dancing in a ballet company and finished at 30, exhausted physically and technically, and just doing character parts.’
However, the limited opportunities for work in dance and theatre in Australia led Jones to go to England in 1970, where he worked with the Ballet Rambert for three years. Polish-born Marie Rambert had worked with Vaslav Nijinsky in the Ballet Russes in Paris (1912-1914) before moving to London and starting her own company.
When Jones joined the company it had started bringing in American choreographers such as Glen Tetley, while retaining pieces such as Nijinsky’s L’ apres-midi d’un faune. For Jones, ‘this is a classic piece, a seminal piece, in which Nijinksky broke all the rules of ballet. He created a piece in which all the dancing is done in two-dimensional positions, using ancient Greek motifs as a starting point, from vases and reliefs. It was quite revolutionary, as was the music’.
Jones had three of his works performed by the company and worked for two of those with jazz composer Mike Gibbs in 1972 and 1973. At the end of 1973, he went to New York, ‘the Mecca for modern dance and modern music like jazz.
‘I had all these ideas about working with dance and theatre and live musicians and while I was in New York I met Gil Evans. That was a very important moment for me. I went to the Village Vanguard when he was performing with the Monday Night at the Vanguard band, the band that recorded Svengali in 1973. For me Gil’s music is the holy grail of music, as it is for Mike Gibbs.’
Jones returned to London briefly but the completion of his apprenticeship in dance and theatre coincided with the Whitlam Labor government coming to power in Australia. ‘There was this pull on expatriate Australians to come back. You felt that Australia might be ready to accept and embrace the arts. I came back at the start of 1975 but within a year Whitlam was gone.
‘I had that wonderful period working in Ballet Rambert but I was basically ready to come back and start my own company. I could have stayed but I felt the pull to come back.’
From Holland to Australia
Although she had not met Jones at this stage, Goudsmit was putting in place some of the other threads that have led to today’s Kinetic Jazz: ‘At this time I was with Jerzy Grotowski in Poland. He’s a theatre innovator and he was one of the driving forces in the 1970s. I was an actor and I was always into physical theatre and the link between the performing arts. So I didn’t see theatre or drama as separate from the other arts.’
Born in Holland, Goudsmit always wanted to be an actor and went from high school to the theatre academy in Amsterdam and from there to Poland in 1974-75. ‘At the time Poland was still behind the Iron Curtain and Solidarity hadn’t even started. Through poster art and music, jazz and theatre there was an underground for channels of new ideas. That was the breeding ground. It was a revolutionary, fertile soil.’
She adds: ‘I always had an interest in music as well and I also had an interest in the live quality of performance, the magic of that, be it drama, theatre or music or whatever. That was my main point of departure.’
Goudsmit returned to Holland and worked with the International Theatre Research Group KISS for eight years. Jean-Pierre Voos was the artistic director. “We were interested in physical theatre, a kind of theatre that does not see literature as the base for the drama but more the physical presence of the actor that is a vehicle for literature and everything else as well, movement, music and so forth, as the starting point.
‘It’s not something really new because the Dada movement and the Surrealists were very much aware of the links between all the arts. Paris was a great centre for Nijinsky and the Ballet Russes to bring together the arts. But then that was kind of hijacked by what Grotowski would have called “the theatre of the rich”, not so much theatre of rich people but the cost of costumery and sets. The spectacular was taking over content and was taking over the true search for meaning.’
Goudsmit grew up listening to jazz and admires how improvisers can take an idea, explore it and communicate it to an audience: ‘It’s such a sophisticated art form, and very underrated.’
She explored improvisation in KISS while Jones was exploring it with his company in Australia. “To improvise in dance is a gigantic step”, she says, “because it is so difficult to do. So difficult to have the flexibility of mind and body to take on an adventure like that and incorporate not just yourself but one, two, three, four or five other people and make sense, to make something that an audience can appreciate as well”.
On coming back to Australia, Jones founded the Kinetic Energy Dance Company in a warehouse venue and was already using jazz musicians in productions at the Seymour Centre between 1975 and 1977.
Goudsmit recalls, ‘I came to Australia with KISS in 1980 and 1983 and the second time we hired a floor of Graham’s studio to rehearse for our Sydney season. He and I really struck a chord straight away as theatre makers and performers, kindred spirits.’
A creative partnership
Jones and Goudsmit ran The Edge at St Peters for 17 years and moved out in 2001 when he was crippled with arthritis. ‘I was out for a year and then we started looking for a new venue. We found the current venue, which is a functioning church, in 2004, and we put the lighting system in so that we can put on fully-fledged theatre productions. We started the Kinetic Jazz Festival in the hall in 2010 and eventually we were given permission to use the church itself as well.’
The annual festivals are followed by satellite events during the year with different formats.
One of the features of new venue is the outstanding acoustics in both the hall and the church, and no amplification is used.
Jones feels that having acoustic concerts ‘puts different challenges on the musicians in terms of what they write for the space and how they play when they are there. It’s a particular kind of hearing amongst the musicians and attention to playing when they play for us because of the environment.’
On several occasions Kinetic Jazz have been able to get the Stuart & Sons grand piano for concerts and this has given another dimension to performances, given the piano’s extended bass and treble range. ‘It’s an Australian instrument,’ Jones says, ‘and it has a special sound. It’s only ever been in the hall and people say that the sound in our space is something to hear. The instrument seems to fit the space and it will be there this January.’
The Kinetic Jazz Orchestra
An important part of the development of Kinetic Jazz has been the formation of the Kinetic Jazz Orchestra. With a book of compositions by band members and director Mike Gibbs now supplemented by Gil Evans arrangements, the band is characterised by precision section work and sparkling solos. Periodic visits from the widely experienced Gibbs, who lives in Spain, have generated a remarkable sense of ensemble.
‘The first time Mike came over he didn’t know what to expect’, Goudsmit says, ‘but when he heard the standard of the musicians and the sparks that started flying as soon as everyone started to work together, it was just a given that he would come back.’
For Jones the KJO is a miracle. ‘Mike has proved that we can get up there and be as good as anyone’, he says. “The concerts he did here were as good as anything he did in Europe, and probably better because we provided him with an 18-piece orchestra instead of 12.’
He sees the band as a social project, with a wide range of ages and experiences included, and the younger players influencing the older and vice versa. ‘You’ve got everyone from 20-year-old Frank Dasent to 70-year-old Don Reid”, Jones observes. “It’s our flagship and it represents what we are about.’
For Goudsmit, ‘It’s like a music ecology, to create a music eco-system where you have all these different layers like a rainforest – we’ve got tall trees and medium trees and some shrubs and lots of exotic animals going around. But it’s very much about creating a community where there is a solidarity, a crossing over, a cross-fertilisation. And then to acknowledge that work by recording it and having CDs coming out.’
Lee McIver rounds out the artistic direction of Kinetic Jazz. A trumpet player, he has been an associate artist of Kinetic Energy since the late 1990s and is also a member of the KJO. He does most of the poster design and artwork and organises the recording of each major Kinetic Jazz event and the CD production. Formerly Victorian Jazz Coordinator, he is a board member of the Kinetic Energy Theatre Company. According to Jones, ‘his knowledge of the music and jazz scene helps to ground us’.
For Jones what differentiates Kinetic from the other jazz festivals around is that there is a hybridisation going on between the musicians and the actors. ‘It’s causing the evolution of these projects. Jazz is getting outside the gig-venue thing and it’s being incorporated into major theatre productions. No one else in Australia is doing that and that’s what is most unique about our work.’
Kinetic Jazz represents a blend of many influences, including jazz, American modern dance, physical theatre, and collaboration between the arts. Sometimes confronting, but always stimulating and innovative, it has added an exciting new dimension to the Sydney jazz and theatre scene.
The Kinetic Jazz Orchestra (KJO) conducted by Mike Gibbs
performing at Venue 505 in April 2012 for Jazzgroove
The program for the 2013 Kinetic Jazz Festival and details of CDs from the 2010 and 2011 festivals can be found at www.kineticjazz.com
More biographical information about Graham Jones and Jepke Goudsmit is at www.kineticenergytheatre.org
Hear Lee McIver at http://au.myspace.com/153814890