Profile by John Shand
It’s a shame more jazz musicians don’t make music the way drummer John Pocheedoes. Rather than chasing self-serving virtuosity or some hazy notion of the ‘right’ way to play, Pochee shoots for committed, highly-interactive and honest music to touch, move and excite the listener. The audience becomes a crucial part of a circle of communication, rather than just being so many dispensable eavesdroppers at something that would have happened anyway.
In jazz more than most art forms the artist’s essential character is evident in their work. In classical music you hear the performer’s character refracted through the composition and the composer’s character refracted through the performer. A similar observation could be made about theatre. But jazz leaves the player naked to the world, so even when Billie Holiday sang a celebratory love song you could hear the underlying anguish. With Poche note by note you hear the warmth of heart, the glint-in-the-eye wit, the raconteur’s instinct, the congeniality and the deep affection for people and for jazz.
Few players besides Pochehave been members of six pivotal Australian jazz bands: in the ’60s the Heads (subsequently the Bernie McGann Quartet); in the ’70s the Judy Bailey Quartet and the Last Straw (which continued into this century); in the ’80s the Bernie McGann Trio (and Quartet, both also running into this century) and Ten Part Invention (ditto); in the ’90s the Engine Room. Furthermore Poche led the Straw, the Engine Room and Ten Part, the latter involving the Herculean task of keeping a 10-piece band together for three decades.
This year he received the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for nearly 60 years of ‘services to music as a jazz musician’. He sees his main contributions as taking the Straw, Engine Room and Ten Part Invention (TPI) to many places around the world playing much original music, as well as significant touring with McGann’s bands. ‘We brought attention to the fact that we have much talent here and were making inroads to establishing something uniquely Australian in our music,’ he says.
His love of the music came from his mother, who had many big-band 78s to play on the family wind-up gramophone. She also took Pochee to hear visiting and local jazz acts, and gave him his first drum. When he eventually acquired a kit the self-taught Pochedeveloped a unique technique of leading with his left hand on a right-handed kit. ‘I had no interest in being the fastest or even the best,’ he recalls. ‘I just wanted to play as good as I could. I wanted to be part of the music, I wanted to experience the sheer joy of making that kind of music, and I just made up what I played.’
In 1955 he left school to become a journalist, absorbing as much live and recorded jazz as he could. He and pianist David Levy began playing in public at Newtown’s Mocambo Coffee, one of the first with espresso coffee. It soon became a magnet for musicians, including saxophonist Bernie McGann. Drumming presently came to replace journalism, with Poche working on a cruise ship and enjoying extended stays in Melbourne. Money, of course, was scarce, and singer Joe Lane’s house, Muttering Lodge, where he stayed, was freezing. He remembers a visiting Mike Nock sleeping swathed in roll of underfelt. The gigs were often in small, illegal speakeasies operating into the wee hours. Lane would also organise impromptu jams on St Kilda Promenade, which, if the wind was in the right direction, could run until dawn.
After a Surfers Paradise stint he returned to Sydney, playing at the El Rocco with Levy. In 1964 Melbourne beckoned again, this time to play with McGann, pianist Dave MacRae and bassist Andy Brown in a six-month, five-nights-a-week residency as the Heads. They rehearsed daily, learning bebop tunes by collectively tapping out the rhythm of the intricate melodies at slower tempos.
The band moved to Sydney and, now as the Bernie McGann Quartet, recorded two tracks for 1967’s Jazz Australia album, Pochee first studio experience. It would happen again with the Judy Bailey Quartet, and meanwhile Pocheformed his first band as leader: the Last Straw, a driving hard bop outfit that finally recorded in 1987. This was ‘the only album I ever produced on my own,’ he says, ‘and it won an ARIA, so I retired as a producer immediately – with a perfect record!’
Among the various McGann trio and quartet albums he cites Bundeena as a particular favourite, and the one he played when Bernie died last year, while Double Dutch?, in raw jazz terms, he nominates as ‘quite possibly my best effort. I had an absolute ball that night.’
In 1986 he formed TPI, which continues until the present day as an ongoing pool of 10 exemplary players dedicated to playing Australian compositions. Its spin-off was the Engine Room (consisting of the band’s rhythm section with Roger Frampton and Steve Elphick). Intriguingly he says the Ten Part album he found most rewarding was Unidentified Spaces, recorded soon after Frampton’s death. ‘There was a really strong spirit in the band that Roger was gone but we were going to carry on,’ he says. ‘I think everybody played at their best, and there’s some interesting music on there. There’s a drum solo on there for those that say I haven’t got any chops. I don’t know what that is I’m doing, but it sounds like a pretty good piece of wreckage falling from a great height to me!’
Although serious health issues prevent Pochee being able to commit to gigs these days he still plays on occasion. And his legacy? Well that’s magnificent.
Ten Part Invention website
John Shand also blogs. View more of his writing at Music & Other Spheres