Jess Dunn speaks to AJN about The Sirens Big Band, as they prepare to launch their first CD Kali and the time of change on 3 March 2013
The Sirens Big Band was years in the planning – Jess Dunn and Harriet Harding had been talking for a long time about starting an all-female band with a specific focus on attaching a new ethos and sound to the big band format. The band became a reality in late 2009 when Jess and Harriet received the annual Jann Rutherford Memorial Award, which assists young female jazz musicians at the beginning of their careers.
It was a real boost, says Jess. ‘The award’s financial support, and connections with organisations such as the ABC and SIMA, enabled us to get the Sirens Big Band off the ground.’
A particular style?
The aim has always been for this 17 piece band to be a very collective and collaborative project, she says. ‘Our sound is very much informed by the members’ varied backgrounds, interests and experiences. A lot of us come from jazz backgrounds, but have experience playing and studying folk music from various parts of the world. So, what you end up with is a very unique sound – jazz meets South Indian, West African, Ethiopian, Latin American and reggae music. Our style is very groove based and great to dance to!’
As a female musician, Jess says that the question of the significance of an all-women band can be a difficult question because the answer is constantly evolving. ‘Of course the music always comes first, but however you want to frame it there are many more male than female musicians in the jazz genre and it is important to address this not only via discussion, but also via action. People’s reactions to the band’s gender, both positive and negative, is proof enough of that for me.’
‘There are arguments that creating all-female ensembles and jazz festivals are counter-productive to ‘the cause’; that the focus should be not about segregating the sexes, but bringing them together. Of course we don’t want to segregate ourselves but there is a necessity to first boost the number of female musicians – and their visibility – by creating a space for them to play, perform, arrange and compose. Creating a community of female musicians is a really important part of this process and that is one of Sirens’ goals. We want to be a band in the truest sense of the word; a supportive space where everyone’s personality and experiences contribute to the music that is made. It’s particularly interesting to hear audience members say that the music that results is not what they expected – whether this is based on preconceived gender perceptions, I’m not entirely sure.’
In the context of this ensemble Jess says her biggest influence and mentor is Sandy Evans, who is also known as the band’s ‘Jazz Mumma’. Jess points out that Sandy is one of the pioneers of creating a space for female jazz musicians in Australia. ‘Her approach to making music really inspires me; she has a lot to give and she genuinely gives a damn.’
Aside from being a band leader (‘AKA that person crazy enough to try to run a 17-piece band!’) Jess says she loves the sheer power of an ensemble this size, and the strength it takes to reign that power in. ‘A band this size offers a lot of exciting options compositionally as well as in performance, and is just so much fun! The biggest challenges for me personally are non-musical; the practicalities of organising this many people, striking a balance between 17 people’s opinions and perspectives.’
The Sirens Big Band is looking forward to continuing to play and perform together, with a focus on developing their sound and, says Jess, ‘ seeing how far we can take our cross-cultural influences’. They’re looking at ways to tour their new CD later this year and possibly making a second album.
The Sirens Big Band is currently involved in a mentorship program they started last year in conjunction with SIMA’s Young Women’s Jazz Course and the Jann Rutherford Memorial Award. They have also started a collaboration with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music offering composition students an opportunity to compose for the band.
Mostly, it seems to be great fun for the band, and audiences alike. ‘We’re all friends who enjoy making music together’, says Jess, ‘which makes for a really exciting and engaging live show. Audiences really seem to dig it and keep coming back for more, which is something we don’t take for granted. ‘
Saxophones – Loretta Palmeiro, Melissa Mony, Rebecca Grubb, Ruth Wells, Harriet Harding, Sophie Unsen
Trombones – Rose Foster, Emma Riley, Fiona Keating, Rosie Marks-Smith
Trumpet – Claire Hollander, Ellen Kirkwood, Lisa Gori, Kim Griffin
Rhythm – Jessica Dunn (band-leader, double bass), Monique Lysiak (piano), Milan Ring (guitar, vocals), Lozz Benson (drums, vocals)
Sirens Big Band on the web www.sirensbigband.com
Sirens Big Band on Facebook www.facebook.com/sirensbigband