Q&A with Julien Wilson by John Hardaker
‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.’ So said that well-know bebopper (in words), Walt (‘Woody’) Whitman.
The quote came to mind when listening recently to two new releases from Melbourne saxophonist and composer Julien Wilson. Swailing is Wilson in Trio mode with guitarist Steve Magnusson and Steve Grant on accordion; This is Always has his big toned horn set amongst a classic quartet made up of Wilson, Barney McAll (piano), Jonathan Zwartz (bass) and Allan Browne (drums).
Swailing is as free as This is Always is restricted; it is as open as the quartet recording is closed. Swailing is the magpie, picking from electric Miles, Massenet and Fats; This is Always is the osprey, its eye fixed on the one prize.
And both are deliriously beautiful for all of these qualities and more.
I was thinking that together they represent the two sides of Julien Wilson, but then the Whitman quote swam into my mind and made me realise that an artist such as Wilson – a true artist in any and every sense – has more than two side: he has multitudes. And we are fortunate that he shares as few or as many as he wishes, with us.
I asked Julien Wilson a baker’s half-dozen questions, and his replies came back generous, insightful and filled with some cool riffing on the head. Thank you, Julien. Enjoy, people.
1. Swailing and This is Always are obviously very different works which flow from the mind of the same artist – what is the aspect that you feel unifies them in your aesthetic?
Well, apart from the fact that I play tenor saxophone on both of them, there are a couple of unifying factors. In each case they are records that I have wanted to make for a long time, with musicians I have known and respected for most of my musical life. I met Steve Grant the same year I first heard Allan Browne play, 1986 I think. Al was in the first ‘live’ jazz band I ever heard and Steve came to a jazz workshop I was playing clarinet at. He played seven tunes on seven instruments that day, and from memory, didn’t say a word. It was probably that same year that my Aunt gave me a Vince Jones Cassette Tape for Christmas that featured Barney on piano.
Anyway, I’m digressing already!
Both albums contain a mix of my tunes (originals?) and other peoples compositions (covers?). Both albums were recorded within a few months of each other. I mixed and mastered them during the same period – mid 2013 – (with different teams) and formed my own label to release them. Both represent a desire to retain 100% control of my own product, both musically and visually from conception to realisation, to release date and physical appearance. Both are available as High Resolution 24bit Downloads as well as CD, the point here being: I really care about the way the albums ‘sound’. Both in the recording process and through the mixing and mastering stages I was very aware of producing the highest quality product, which I guess is as ‘aesthetic’ an answer as I can give.
2. Did the players suggest the directions of both works, or did you start with a concept and then build a band around it?
The trio has been together for ten years now. Our first album was live, and we’ve discussed how to go about making a studio album for some time. The band kind of ‘presented’ itself to us as a collection of friends, rather than a pre-determined selection of instruments, with players then selected to play those instruments. Mags and I have played in many bands together over the years, often without a bass player, and in trio with drums we’ve worked on making the time very elastic. So the opportunity to play without drums seemed natural. All three of us have a love of various music and musicians from South America (especially Argentina) so the accordion’s ‘bandoneon’ qualities, combined with the nylon-string guitar’s obvious ‘Brazillian’ references, and the expressive elements of the saxophone that conjure links to Tango and, of course, Stan Getz took us in a certain natural direction. Tunes I had written previous to the trio’s formation took on connotations of bossa rhythms and phrasing that were never originally intended. Magnusson’s composition, My First 2001 is a tune we’ve played with many groups. It was written before the trio was formed, but has become almost a signature piece for this band. My composition, Midway was written just before the recording. Actually the melody was written overnight between the two days in the studio, and overdubbed the next day, so this is one tune that was really custom built for the trio. The bass clarinet is a new instrument for me, and one that I’ve heard more and more fitting in to the fabric of the trio. The lack of a standard rhythm section of bass and drums means that the trio have to challenge the traditional roles of our instruments and find new relationships and responsibilities. Mags’ move from nylon-string to electric guitar (and more recently Moog Guitar) have changed my role in the trio, and the bass clarinet lets me move further in to an area that I’ve been interested in for many years. With the pitch and sonority of the bass clarinet I can play more of a supportive and propulsive function within the group. Additionally, the group has always been about the blend of tones we can achieve between our instruments, which is really unique to this band. The sound of the bass clarinet combining with the accordion has been more and more appealing to me lately. Interestingly, the tenor sax, accordion and guitar have almost identical pitch ranges, which means the roles within the group can be highly interchangeable.
Another point of interest with the trio is that for some reason an uncanny number of people seem to draw connections between our sound (perhaps the instrumentation and romanticism of it) with ‘French music’. Rather than fight this any longer, Steve Grant visited France a number of times in 2011 and 2012. He reported, despite visiting an extensive number of cafes and clubs throughout France, (and especially in Paris) of hearing NO accordionistas accompanying baristas. Despite this, he returned to Australia with a swathe of French manuscripts for us to play, and, as fortune would have it, just before the recording session, we were hired for a season of concerts at the National Gallery of Victoria in support of a Napoleon exhibition! From the variety of ‘French’ music we looked at, we adopted and recorded ‘Thai’s Meditation’ by Massenet (incorrectly credited to Gabriel Faure on the album by yours truly).
For the quartet album, I basically just wanted to make an album with Barney while he was in town at Allan Eatons with Ross Cockle. Ross had recently recorded Sweethearts with Sam Anning and Allan Browne and I had such a good time doing it I wanted to do it again with Barney. I’ve always wanted to make a ballads album with piano, acoustic bass and drums, and the chance to have Al and Barney together seemed to good to let go. As luck would have it, my trio became unavailable for a concert we were booked for, and I managed to get Jonathan and Barney to replace them and book Eatons the next day. The half hour concert was all the rehearsal we had before the recording. Barney and I brought a handful of charts of ‘standards’ on the day, and I picked a couple of my originals (all written very recently) that I thought would complement the other songs. So in this situation, the ‘concept’ and the ‘band’ were almost the same thing. I really wanted to just play all the tunes once, with as little discussion/instruction as possible, and let the musicians bring their individual voices to the music.
3. How do you pick your players on both works? What was the quality you looked for?
With the quartet record, Barney and Al have a long history together. Barney and Jonathan also have a long a history together. I’ve played with them all in various projects. Recently I’ve been playing more and more regularly with Al and Jonathan in a variety of projects. They seemed like they would make such a perfect team. It wasn’t until I booked them that I realised Al and Jonathan had never played in a band together.
The trio: Mags and I have played in so many bands together I’ve lost count. It started in 1992 when I was 20. Strangely enough, the first official gig we did together may have been in Niko Schauble’s Tibetan Dixie! (We recorded Swailing at Niko’s Studio). We formed the trio with Steve Grant when Will Guthrie (who played drums with us in the assumptions trio) moved to France. (Hmm, there may be a French connection with the trio after all?!?)
Most of my music-making with Steve had involved playing traditional (and some modern) jazz with him playing trumpet (or piano, or trombone, or bass, or alto sax!). in 2004 we were living together in a share house in North Fitzroy and Steve was often sitting in the backyard ‘practicing’ what we affectionately called his ‘screaming suitcase’. I remember one morning hearing ‘Blue in Green’ drifting through the back door (strangely familiar, but surreal on accordion) then, later in the day ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. It struck me all of a sudden that the accordion could give a really interesting take on material not normally associated with it.
The qualities I look for in musicians, (beyond ability, SOUND and touch) are honesty, confidence, heart-on-sleeve bravery, and the ability to tell their own story, regardless of style or influence. I like players who can commit spiritually to many styles of music but who don’t feel sacrilegious about stepping outside the confines of a given style. As an improviser first and foremost, I give maximum credit to individualists, but I believe that dedication to immersing yourself in specific styles of music can open creative doors that stay closed to people who strive to stay free of influence in the pursuit of creative purity. I like to give my band members as few instructions as possible, so they can play what they hear, which is ultimately going to be more interesting to me than what I think I might want to hear them play.If I feel I can trust the musicians, I can just play, and let them find what the music means to them, without having to give it a label, or place it in the correct bag.
4. Your composition ‘Trout River’ gets quite distinctly different treatments on both albums – was this the band’s conception, or yours?
I actually wrote this tune around the same time as ‘I Believe This Belongs To You’. I had my regular electric quartet in mind during the compositional process, so both these recordings are different from the initial conception of the song. From a personal perspective, the treatment is the same. I basically just presented the lead sheet to the band and counted it in. The tune is a blend of sweetness and melancholy I guess and there’s a bluesy element to both those. After the first take with the quartet, I decided to just feature Barney, and do some restrained blowing on the intro and outro. It reminded me of a Wayne Shorter kind of vibe where the melody is just repeated and fragmented while the rhythm section solos internally. With the trio we’d performed the tune live a few times already before the recording so it was something we all felt comfortable blowing on. It sounds simple, but the changes are tricky to solo over smoothly. Everyone who’s played this tune quizzes me about the chord changes. Strangely enough, given the instrumentation, the quartet version to me feels like the floaty dreamlike version, whereas the trio really digs in and gets funky on it. I especially love the rhythm sections dreamy intro on This is Always, and the accordion solo and funky outro on Swailing.
5. What was you thinking behind the selection of non-original pieces on both Swailing and This is Always?
I like songs. I like playing other peoples tunes. I also like improvising and composing my own material, but there is a wealth of beautiful music out there that deserves to be at least ‘recycled’. On Swailing, they are mostly tunes we have had in the repertoire for a while, although some of them got new treatments in the studio. The Massenet tune was brought in by Steve Grant for our Napoleonic Season at the NGV. Little Church is from Live-Evil, (Miles with Hermeto) which I’ve always loved. ‘Chanting’ is on the first Ornette record I ever owned. It is one of his lesser known pieces, but an incredibly soulful melody. Ornette actually plays it on trumpet. The trio only play the verse of Stardust, as a piece in it’s own right. It struck us as something the Paul Motian Trio would do. ‘Creole Rhapsody’ was taught to me by John Scurry, and I play it any chance I get. It’s early Ellington and just pure genius.
The idea behind This is Always was to do a jazz ballads session. My originals just kind of snuck in there as appropriate vehicles. I’ve been playing The Feeling of Jazz & Deep Night on gigs for a few years and they’ve both got some voodoo about them. I guess neither of them are really ballads actually. I don’t really know anyone else who plays either of those songs. Barney suggested This Is Always, The Party’s Over and Stairway to the Stars, which were all new to me. I loved that because it kept a freshness about the session that I wanted. I messed around with some other harmonies, some of which made it on the record, and some got vetoed by the band! We actually recorded enough material for two albums on the day. 17 songs I think. I wanted songs that haven’t been done to death, and that have something unusual about them. Body and Soul of course has been done by everyone, but for some reason nobody plays the verse. I love that we just play one verse and one chorus on this version.
For the record: None of us were trying to DO anyone on this recording. No song is a particular tribute to any one player. I dedicated some tunes to different friends in the liner notes, but the idea when playing the songs was just to play them as honestly as possible with respect to the song, the spirit of the music, the other musicians in the room and to myself.
6. What are your thoughts on jazz in Australia today?
As I write this I’m painfully aware that David Tolley has just left us. Dave was an inspiration to so many to find your own voice and be a product of your own culture. As was Brian Brown who died just over a year ago and inspired a whole generation (or two or three) through his playing and his teaching at the Victorian College of The Arts. Both were dedicated to encouraging others to find their own voice, express their true identity and reject established (and imported) stereotypes of what improvised music should be. In the interim between the departure of Tolley and Brownie we also tragically lost Bernie (McGann) and Dave (Ades). These four musicians were personally responsible for a lot of my convictions about music, and were an amazing source of inspiration and encouragement for me, as musicians dealing with the Australian landscape, and as close friends and mentors. They were my heroes, along with Mark Simmonds (who hasn’t performed for years) and Phil Treloar (who has been in Japan for decades). They all had (have) incredibly unique voices and were/are an inspiration for others to create their own.
I don’t want to get in to a ‘is there an Australian sound?’ debate, as I almost think in this day and age of information overload and instant global communication that an artistic National identity is becoming a moot point. Unfortunately in the wider community there seems to be a disgusting move in Australia towards a Nationalistic attitude that I thought we’d grown out of. It’s ironic that This is Always was recorded on Australia Day, and also they day Brian passed away. I’ve always been patriotic in the sense that I’m proud of Australian innovations and openness, but I’m finding it hard to deal with the Nationalistic attitude of ‘We were here first, so if you don’t like it, go back where you came from’. What happened between Hoge’s ‘Throw another Prawn on the Barby’ and Hanson’s ‘I don’t like it’? Surely as a nation we don’t want to be seen as the kind of people that ‘give’ a drowning family a raft and push them back out to sea!!!!! Where’s the honour and humanity (fair go??) in that?
But, back to music:
‘New’ is old. ‘Experimental’ music is now as predictable as Mozart and Beethoven. ‘Mouldy’ music has become ‘refreshed’ again as young people adopt it. We have a new set of young musicians that understand all this and can straddle the fence rather than sitting on it. Brett Thompson, James Macauley, Marty Holoubek, and Aaron Flower are a younger generation of guys who embrace all styles, without arguing about which ones are more or less ‘relevant’. It’s all music. The guys from Cope Street Parade and Geoff Bulls Band and The New Sheiks and FLAP are reinvigorating music from another era in their own way. This is recycling in the best sense. Making something useful and relevant from something that has already been used, but is by no means worn out. The ideas of the Modernists who wanted to destroy the museums in an effort to stop glorifying the past have been proven merely interesting, rather than essential to the progression of art.
For jazz in Australia to continue to evolve and mature, it needs young people to reinvigorate it and continue reinventing not just the music, but the spirit of it. I like old music, but I don’t want to play in a museum. I like creating new sounds and experimenting and developing ‘my art’, but I don’t want to always play to an intelligentsia underground crowd of 5. Jazz (or whatever you want to call it) should be serious fun. It should have the ability to tell the saddest story ever told, but still be uplifting! It has to be playful and contain challenges as well as beauty. Above all, it needs to be emotive and expressive and communicate with an audience, because if we don’t have them…
7. What are your thoughts on music in general today?
See above. Without Music I would be …. probably dead or in jail to tell the truth.
Music is becoming less and less of a commodity as everyone can now get it for nothing.
Anyway, there is so much music out there now … how can you make a dint in it?
Musicians are giving away their albums (and still finding it hard to be heard and reviewed!)
There is a generation now that don’t give a fuck about quality of sound. They love big TV’s with Full Definition Screens but are happy to listen to music on shitty compressed MP3’s through tiny tinny boxes. A survey I read recently said something like 85% of Teenagers surveyed on a blindfold test PREFERRED the sound of MP3’s to full quality High Def files??????? Some of my students at Uni prefer to hold a microphone to the speaker on their iPhone to play a tune through the PA rather than plug in in to the nice old stereo the school has. WTF??
There are more musicians in the world than ever before.
Many of them have (multiple) degrees.
Gigs generally pay the same (or less) than they did when I started doing gigs in the late 80’s!
Working musicians can no longer ‘join a band’ or get an apprenticeship with one group.
Everyone is chasing their tail doing 8 gigs a week with 10 different groups.
‘Popular’ music (see Fox FM) picks up a few songs a month and squeezes them dry, wringing the very life out of them until they are bled-dry, disposed of and forgotten while they move on to the ‘flavour-of-next-month’
However, all this means that grass-roots musicians have taken control of their own products and their own performance spaces and are creating their own opportunities to perform, record and distribute their music. People know what they want and have the ability to be totally in control of their own products. Niche venues and homespun performance spaces are springing up like wildflowers amongst the corporate dust and music is being taken back where it belongs: [in to the local community] and re-establishing it’s place in society [a balm for weary souls and an elixir for our spirits]
Swailing: Julien Wilson, Stephen Magnusson, Steve Grant
This is Always: Julien Wilson, Barney McAll, Jonathan Zwartz, Allan Browne
Please purchase if you enjoy… support musicians and keep the music coming!
Find Swailing at Lionsharecords on Bandcamp
Find This is Always at Lionsharecords on Bandcamp