by John Hardaker
Two jazz releases around the beginning of the year that really made me prick up my ears were Mace Francis’ ‘Land Speed Record’ and Alice Humphries’ ELICA. Both were bristling with unique vision and sparkling with ideas. Both contained performances among the best I’d heard in Australian jazz. Both emanated from Perth-based artists.
This month I was sent a quartet of new releases from Perth’s Listen/Hear Collective, the ‘record label – music community – home of creativity’ set up by Mace Francis and Johannes Luebbers.
They were Sweethearts by the Sam Anning Trio (beautifully open and conversational trio work), City Speaks by Callum G’Froerer (impressionistic and sharp music from the trumpeter who leapt out at me from the ECILA album), Wear More Headbands from THE GRID (quirky and tough grooves, jazz power trio) and lastly – the one that really knocked my socks off – Caterpillar Chronicles from the Steve Newcombe Orchestra (some of the most ecstatically original large ensemble material I have come across to date).
Again, the same daring, fun and crackling energy of creation that I had earlier encountered on the Francis and Humphries albums sizzled off each of these releases. Looking through the online catalogue of the Collective I saw an embarrassment of riches in creative music.
And I really fell for their line: ‘The recordings we sell will paint a picture of a scene without a name, without trying to give it one.’
Even though some of the artists are based elsewhere – Newcombe in Brisbane, Perth-born G’Froerer now in Melbourne – there was a definite Perth thing going on. I asked Mace Francis and Johannes Luebbers a handful of questions about the Collective and Perth and music.
Here are their responses:
What has attracted me to the Listen/Hear Collective is your reaching for eclecticism. Do you feel that jazz needs cross-pollination from other genres to survive?
Mace Francis – Definitely. Musicians and composers have access to so many more influences and each generation grows up listening to different styles of music that gets stuck into your subconscious. I certainly didn’t grow up listening to Ellington or Armstrong rather it was commercial radio, then guitar gods like Clapton, Hendrix, then hip hop, then jazz. Jazz is different in every period of history and has relied on cross-pollination to grow and survive since the beginning.
Johannes Luebbers – I agree. In my view, the capacity for jazz to draw on other kinds of music is the thing that most defines it. It grew out of the collision of different styles and has evolved pretty consistently over the past century through the assimilation of other influences. So rather than needing cross-pollination to survive, I would say cross-pollination is core part of it’s identity. I love swing and bebop, but I think the overemphasis on these styles runs the risk of turning jazz into a museum piece, when its essence is really improvisation and spontaneity. You need new inputs to keep these aspects alive.
You say the Collective is not afraid to explore the ‘places where those genres meet’. What is that place? Could it be a new music?
MF – We don’t know where that place is either but, the excitement is in the journey to find it.
JL – The reality is most people creating contemporary music sit in between traditional genres. I suppose we just want to acknowledge and support these growing areas and support a space where artists don’t feel the need to conform to a particular label. If we name the ‘place’ it might stop being so open!
I have been pretty knocked out by much I have heard from WA – is there something in the water?
MF – Maybe its all the chlorine? It is a small but strong scene. Musicians understand that you need to train, practice and rehearse. WAAPA and WAYJO have certainly helped to instil this in young players and then you just get some freaks that come out of nowhere… and then move to Melbourne (unfortunately for us).
JL – There are limitations to a scene the size of Perth, but I think there are certain benefits also. It can act as a bit of an incubator. You get to know pretty much everyone in the scene and there is often great camaraderie.
WAAPA seems an epicentre. Is it all WAAPA or is that institute just a lightning rod for a wider scene?
MF – WAAPA has a great reputation around the country and here in Perth. It was the reason I moved from Victoria. It has great musicians on staff and they really push the importance of the fundamentals of the music. There are other organisations in WA that then support these pools of great musicians that graduate every year. WAYJO (WA Youth Jazz Orchestra) has been around for 30 years and gives young musicians great professional performance, recording and touring opportunities. Perth Jazz Society is the longest running modern jazz society in the country (40 years) and they promote performance opportunities. We now have the Ellington with music 6 nights a week so there are many more performance opportunities and there are more venues opening up and hosting live music.
JL – WAAPA is also the reason I moved from Victoria to Perth. It’s certainly the hub of the jazz scene, but as Mace said there are various other organisations and opportunities that surround it. From a people point of view WAAPA is certainly the hub. Most of the top players in town would teach there and as a young artist that’s where you meet people at a similar level. Most of the people I work with now I either studied with or met through WAAPA in other ways.
Manhattan pops up as a jazz sister city to Perth – Mace Francis’ ‘Land Speed Record’ was as much of Manhattan as of Perth and the Steve Newcomb Orchestra grew out of trio jams at the Manhattan School of Music – what is the connection there?
MF – It is the new home of jazz and a mecca to many musicians. Most of the connections have come out of personal ones. There are loads of Perth musicians in NY at the moment, Matt Jodrell, Troy Roberts, Des White, Sam Anning, Linda Oh, Sean Little and they are all doing well. My connection was with Jon Gordon who came to Perth to work at WAAPA, he then randomly suggested Matt Jodrell as a trumpet player to play on the recording. Steve Newcombe studied with Jim McNeely and had many Aussie musicians on the recording. It makes the world a smaller place when you have personal friends and contacts around the world – just so happens that many friends have moved there.
JL – Steve is actually based in Brisbane, but as Mace said there are quite a number of Perth (and Australian) musicians in NYC. I think perhaps because of the relative smallness and isolation of the Australian jazz scene, and the Perth jazz scene specifically, musicians feel more of a need to move elsewhere to expand networks and, to an extent, validate what we do. Australians aren’t always great at acknowledging our own worth. If you’re going to move anywhere New York is a pretty good choice! Some of the greatest artists of any genre are based there, so the potential to network is huge. So I think the desire to leave Australia, combined with the huge number of excellent jazz and improvising musicians already in NYC, results in the high representation there.
It seems too glib to suggest that all this creative hothousing comes from Perth being the most isolated capital city in the world, but it is the sort of too-neat shit that us writers thrive on – indulge me…
MF – It is isolated, in that it is 4 hours flight to the next big city but I am happy with that. Perth is great for all the reasons above and the weather is sweet. It would be different if we were on horse back. I dont ever think about the distance or isolation. We are speaking across the country, you can email/skype anyone in the world for pretty much free and we are closer to Europe than the eastern staters, depending which airline. So no, I wont indulge you.
JL – Ha, it is the classic question. As I’ve already said, I think isolation plays into it. But at the same time we are no more isolated than Melbourne from the happenings of New York, London, Berlin etc. The interweb means it is all a click away! I guess when it’s just me, the desert and the roo’s out here what else there to do but go and practice more?
Following on from that idea – I am sent a lot of jazz releases over time, but I did find many of the releases from Perth refreshingly original in concept – Mace Francis, Alice Humphries’ ECILA ensemble (a favourite) and now the rather amazing Steve Newcombe Orchestra. Am I imagining it?
MF – What can I say – we are awesome! Steve has always been based in Brisbane but we would claim him if he was here. Perth has a strong large ensemble composition culture for quite awhile now which was started by Graeme Lyall almost 20 years ago. He was involved with WAAPA and WAYJO and many composer have come through that program and all been bitten by the large ensemble bug.
JL – Yeah there is a great culture of composition which really lends itself to large ensemble writing. As well as those you’ve mentioned there are people like Tilman Robinson (who’s soon to release his debut), guys like Andrew Murray and Jordan Murray (unrelated) in Melbourne, Grant Windsor and Chris Grieve over in the UK… As Mace suggests, it really is the legacy of Graeme. He managed to teach you just enough, but not too much (probably to the frustration of many), which meant if you were interested you had to chase down leads he suggested and figure a lot of stuff out yourself. It resulted in a whole bunch of graduates who had come at it from slightly different angles. If you compare the writing of Mace, myself, Alice and others, we don’t sound the same at all. The experience of WAYJO for many was also a fantastic opportunity that furthered the interest in big band music. Then once you get a few people starting their own group others see what’s possibly and follow suit. I was a couple of years behind Mace and his creation of MFO was an example for me of what I could do to – others then follow on as we go too.
Does the Collective seek out all the singular talents on your roster – jeez, where do you get a Callum G’Froerer? – or do they find you?
MF – It goes both ways. We seek out some and some seek us out. What we release is based on the quality and the timing of it. Because we are a small organisation and we are also busy doing other things we can only limit ourselves to a certain amount each year. Sometimes there are some great releases and the artists wants it out a week ago but we cant help at that time. As for Callum, we was in my big band when he was 16 so it was only right that we released his first CD. Now that he is famous he might want to go elsewhere.
JL – Yes Callum has worked with both of us in different contexts over the years, so we knew his stuff pretty well. To date we have been pretty reactive to things that have come our way, and we’ve just been lucky some interesting things have come. It would be great to curate things a little more, but it’s been hard to find the time and resources to do it properly. It’s been a slow burn but we’re slowly moving more in that direction.
What next for the Listen/Hear Collective?
MF – We have a part-time administrator now who is keeping us in line and we have a few releases planned coming out soon. At the moment we are just trying to get the word out on our recent releases http://listenhearcollective.bandcamp.com/
JL – Hopefully more great music. In the current financial and digital climate a record label is a tough sell. It’s an ever evolving process, but we’re trying to tighten up a few processes and do things better all the time. The website is about to be redesigned which is exciting. As Mace said, we’ve now got some administrative help too, which is great and we are doing some mentoring with Room40 Records in 2014, so will be hopefully developing the business further. Ultimately we just want to provide a great platform for interesting music to be heard! But sustainability is a constant question (know any mining magnates who love jazz?).
And finally – what are your thoughts on jazz at present and on the wider art/commercial form of music today? Feel free to use bad language.
MF – TV talent shows are ruining everything.
JL – There’s a lot of great music being made – in both commercial and art music spheres – but there is also a lot of shit. I find the sheer quantity of music out there overwhelming – there’s never enough time to check out all the things that seem to pop up. It’s also difficult to get noticed above the noise, and the democratising of recording means there’s a lot more noise out there. In terms of jazz, people seem to reject the term more and more frequently, which I guess is partly where Listen/Hear comes from (though both Mace and I’s music is probably often pretty firmly in the jazz camp). The rejection of labels and the fluidity of different genres has led to some exciting sounds – I’ve been listening a lot to the Claudia Quintet lately, who bring aspects of 20th century composition into a contemporary jazz setting, creating some wonderful sounds. A number of Australian jazz and improvising artists have been pursuing cross-cultural collaborations for some time, one example being Simon Barker and his work with Bae Il Dong. This has resulted in some really interesting stuff that also breaks away from conventional stylistic divisions. As a very different example, someone like Esperanza Spalding makes incredible music that pulls in the world of pop and and results in music that is completely accessible but very sophisticated too. Leading back to your first question, this all highlights jazz’s affinity for cross-pollination. I think the most exciting jazz related music I’ve heard in recent years is that which brings in other sounds and styles in some way.
Listen/Hear Collective online at listenhearcollective.com
Listen/Hear Collective Bandcamp listenhearcollective.bandcamp.com