National Jazz Awards Finalists – Q&A with Matthew Sheens

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 in 2013 runs from Friday 1 to Monday 4 November. Find out more on their website

This year the awards feature keyboard players and the ten finalists are: Hugh Barrett | Matthew SheensMatthew Boden | Steve Barry | Tal Cohen | Andrew Butler | Dave Spicer | Daniel GassinJoseph O’Connor | James Bowers

Matthew Sheens

When did you start playing jazz and why? For example, was there a ‘moment’ when it came to you as a calling or vocation?

Matthew SheensI was always a fairly unconventional student. I wasn’t interested in reading the dots as a kid, and would learn everything by ear, make arrangements and compose my own pieces. I wondered why in Art class you were encouraged to make your own paintings, but in Music class you were only encouraged to learn other people’s creations. I guess that outlook paved the way for me becoming interested in improvisation and jazz (this more fluid genre) when my teacher introduced me to basic jazz harmonic language in high school, and then in 10th grade I started my own quartet where I could write for my friends.

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

The usual suspects are naturally a part of it – Herbie Hancock, Wynton Kelly, Keith Jarrett etc. Going further back definitely Errol Garner. However in later years I’ve been interested and ft by more non- jazz pianists. Even though, as pianists, we’re sort of hard-wired to not love singers, I do get inspiration from a lot of vocalists. Lots of Russian and French classical music too.

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

All over the place. Sometimes a composition is born out of thinking of a specific, often unusual experience or person. Sometimes I purposefully expose myself to music that either I haven’t spent much time with or I know I sound completely different to, and see how that unfamiliar material changes/ sculpts my musical outlook.

What’s your favourite place to play or practise?

I (sometimes) miss being in a conservatory because, in that environment, you can practice on lots of different pianos – which is important on some level. Sometimes a different piano or location and give a fresh perspective and you can different ideas on different instruments. Now my choices are limited – my piano in my NYC apartment with the upstairs neighbours banging on my roof telling me to shut up.

What are you most looking forward to at Wangaratta?

Everything – because I’ve never been (to the festival at least), and I like not knowing what to expect.

What are you listening to now?

Every time I board a long haul flight I buy a couple of albums so I don’t get bored if the movies are no good (or if I’ve finished watching the 6th movie and we’re still only over Tonga). This time around I bought some choral music by the much hyped New York composer Nico Muhly, because I felt out of the loop and was interested, as well as the albums of some of my friends.