Article by John Shand
Banner image Harry Sutherland Trio with guest Jessica Carlton. Photo: Scott Burgess.
To say he polarises people could be a lame pun on his ethnicity. To describe him as bullish is to invite an analogy that Sydney’s jazz scene was sometimes a china shop. But by nature we like ‘what if’ games, and an intriguing one is how Sydney’s jazz scene would look had Peter Rechniewski not come along; had not founded the Sydney Improvised Music Association (SIMA) in 1984 and not pursued it for 28 bountiful years. Certainly much extraordinary music may never have happened.
Rechniewski, SIMA, the Strawberry Hills Hotel, the early 1990s and certain bands all converged to create a scene charged with such electricity that the seeds of long-terms success were sown for many groups. Wanderlust, The catholics and Clarion Fracture Zone were born, while Mark Simmonds’ Freeboppers, Ten Part Invention, the Bernie McGann Trio and various bands of Mike Nock and Mark Isaacs all attracted and consolidated audiences; all recorded and sold CDs. It was a golden age.
Before that Rechniewski had already made a mark by booking the music at Jenny’s Wine Bar in the early ’80s, famously offering Bernie McGann the residency that resulted in the formation of the Bernie McGann Trio. His latest contribution has been to establish a new venue, Foundry616, this time as owner.
Born in Warsaw, Rechniewski came to Australia just before he turned seven. His father, more concert goer than record collector, made the young Peter aware of jazz’s great figures. ‘I wasn’t especially rebellious in those matters,’ Rechniewski recalls. ‘I took on board things that my parents liked… I liked listening to the piano, so I used to like listening to Beethoven sonatas and a few other things, and they used to take me to the odd symphony concert… I remember going to the 1955 Chopin Piano competition in Warsaw.’
He fell under the spell of jazz upon hearing a John Sangster band (including Graeme Lyall and Judy Bailey) in 1967 at King Cross’s tiny El Rocco. ‘I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard,’ he enthuses. ‘The compositions were engaging, and their kind of abstraction appealed to my sense of snobbery. There was something about it that was completely irresistible.’
Still at school, Rechniewski caught buses to the El Rocco about once a month throughout 1967. By 1969 he was at university when Sangster had a new band with Dave MacRae and Alan Turnbull. ‘That band was even more influenced by the avant garde,’ he says. ‘I remember one night they played Sangster’s Conjur-Man, and it went for 55 minutes – an entire set!’
Graduating in ’72 from Sydney University Rechniewski tried casual teaching before deciding on post-graduate studies, meanwhile absorbing the Jazz Co-Op, the Last Straw, the Judy Bailey Quartet and others at the newly-opened Basement. He transferred his post-graduate work to the Institute of Historical Studies at London University for a year, allowing him to catch the likes of Cecil Taylor, Dudu Pukwana, Stan Tracey and Keith Tippett.
Back in Sydney he completed a Dip Ed, and in ’77 began presenting jazz by putting on the Last Straw at the Pinball Wiz on Thursdays. After two years he returned to London, where an intended doctorate failed to materialise thanks to the pressures of survival while teaching in a difficult school. The pay-off was meeting his wife, Liz, in 1979. They came to live in Sydney in 1982, where Peter taught and booked the music (and occasionally worked the bar) at Jenny’s.
When Jenny’s folded Jazz magazine editor Eric Myers suggested forming a government-funded, non-profit association. SIMA was born, bringing out Dewey Redman for the 1985 Sydney Festival. Jane March became Peter’s indispensable partner in the project, which, at the end of 1989 moved into the Strawberry Hills. Here the aforementioned glory years unfolded, despite the concerts being early in the week. In late ’97 the hotel’s management opted for gambling over music, so SIMA had an itinerant year before taking root at the Side On Cafe until 2004.
In 2005 it moved to its current home at the Sound Lounge. Rechniewski stepped down as president in 2008, retired from teaching in 2010, and quit as artistic director at the end of 2012. He says that a key goal as artistic director had been ‘to keep the best groups in the public eye, and try to bring some up-and-coming really strong artists along… To help a band create an audience for itself now is much more difficult than it was in the early ’90s.’ He points to the wider array of distractions, and the sad fact that people seem less inclined to go out.
With Rechniewski at the helm SIMA also brought out such front-rank internationals as Andrew Hill, Horace Tapscott, Carlos Ward and John Hicks, Trio 3 and Greg Osby. Among the collaborations he instigated between internationals and locals he especially prizes those involving Andy Sheppard, Don Pullen, Marilyn Crispell, Kirk Lightsey and Steve Lacy.
Asked about young players whose work excites him he nominates
Peter Farrar, Dave Jackson, Steve Barry, Ben Panucci, Nick Garbett, Luke Sweeting, Harry Sutherland and Tom Botting, and is particularly impressed with Matthew Ottignon’s new band, Mr Ott.
Foundry616 opened last October in inner-city Ultimo, presenting music from Tuesday to Saturday (plus the odd Monday). So how do the rigours of running a jazz venue compare with teaching a class of rowdy teenagers?
‘Far worse!’ he replies.
Listen to a podcast interview with Peter by Mick Paddon of Sydney’s Eastside FM 89.7