Ryan Griffith | NJA Finalist Q&A

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 2014 runs from Friday 31 October to Monday 3 November. Find out more at wangarattajazz.com

This year the awards feature guitar players and the ten finalists are: Quentin Angus from New York (originally from Adelaide) | David Gooey from Melbourne | Ryan Griffith from Melbourne | Peter Koopman from Sydney | Paul Mason from Sydney | Carl Morgan from Sydney (originally from Canberra) | Michael Anderson from Sydney | Hugh Stuckey from Melbourne (originally from Adelaide) |  Jeremy Thomson from Perth | Oliver Thorpe from Sydney

Ryan Griffith

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

I was about nine or so. My Dad and I played in an old time band together. He played tuba and I was on clarinet. There weren’t too many other instruments and there was no improvising except for my varying excuses to eat the band rider of cakes and biscuits early. We played ragtime stuff and some standards. I didn’t get it at all at the time.

I picked up the guitar at about 11 and jumped into the world of rock and blues. Jimi Hendrix was God and my Stratocaster and I were inseparable. I embarked upon a mission to have the loudest, most raucous guitar rig on the block. Jazz kind of happened by chance around this time.

I was invited to a local jazz gig and sat in on a blues. I reeled off a bunch of licks and somehow the band leader liked my sound; he offered me $80 to come and play on every other Sunday arvo. I was pushing trolleys at Safeway and earned a paltry $4.50 an hour so jumped at the chance to earn some bucks to fund my expansionist guitar rig dreams. The band leader Rob, gave me an LP of Wes Montgomery’s Incredible Jazz Guitar. It was an original pressing and must have been worth a bit. He said something like ‘learn how to play this by ear and you’ll be sorted’. Rob was a gambling man, and I guess now the gamble has paid off. Jazz has been my vocation ever since.

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

I didn’t go and study jazz at university. I’ve learned the art of playing jazz on stage alongside so many of the wonderful musicians here in Melbourne, and in Japan where I spent several years – over time I’ve come to realise that my colleagues have been the biggest influence on my musicianship. They’ve showed me the finer points of harmony, groove and most importantly how to survive as a muso in the fickle arts industry. Some of these musos have since dropped off the perch, but those who I work with each week keep challenging me to play and listen better. They also show me how to laugh and hang, which is probably the reason why I have stuck at it.

Singers have taught me a lot about connecting to the songs that I play. Kimba and I try to choose songs that have a true resonance with our life or a bounce that lifts us out of our everyday. Ben Gillespie is great at that too. He can sing a Sinatra thing or even a Jimmy Barnes song and make it his own.

Sometimes you learn very specific things from other players. For example, I did a gig with UK saxophonist Gilad Atzmon earlier this year. We started the set with a very slow version of ‘I Can’t Get Started’. Within the first form I had learned more about intensity and commitment to musical ideas than I had in the last 20 years. Music is weird like that. Some concepts just hang around for ages, and then all of a sudden they just sink in and it all makes sense.

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

Inspiration comes to me in two main ways. Firstly, through necessity and secondly, through stillness and quiet moments. Often I’ll have a deadline for a piece that is looming and I really just need to tap into the creative juices to get the thing done. I find during these times, that I don’t have time to self-criticise or to get too obscure; more often than not I run with the first or second iteration of an idea which tend to the be the strongest anyway.

Other times when I have extended periods of space and stillness, for example when I took time off everything when my children were born, I seem to need to write to appease the creative restlessness. I churned out so many songs during those periods.

I don’t know what I’ll do for the next lot of songs – the family band is big enough!

What’s your favourite place to play or practise?

I actually love the variety of places and environments that I get to play in. Each room has its sweet spot and each audience its unique quirks. I get to be a fly on the wall and although people are watching me when I play, they forget that it is me who is watching them.

Practise these days happens late at night. I play mostly acoustic, preferring my old archtops. It’s mostly for my sanity. Other times when I’m too hectic, I just practise in my mind – see myself playing the sounds that I want to hear.

I have some places that I really don’t like to play. But I better not share them here.

What are you most looking forward to at Wangaratta?

I love playing for festival crowds. Everyone has taken time out and is immersed in music for a few days and there is a lot of energy in that fact. I’m looking forward to telling my story with jazz guitar and enjoying the opportunity to play alongside the other top young players in the country. From what I know of the other guys, everyone is a monster player and expresses a diverse representation of the broad ‘jazz guitar’ genre.

On a personal note, the awards are an affirmation for me for the path that I have taken so far in my life. I’m the ‘old dog’ of the bunch – and every dog has its day, so bring it on!

What are you listening to now?

There is always something playing at home. This morning we’ve had Beatles Revolver, some Simon and Garfunkel, and the great Johnny Smith. Yesterday it was Bill Frisell’s Big Sur, Jon Hendricks and Art Farmer. Sam Cooke gets a bit of play as does Macklemore.

As far as modern jazz guitarists go, I’m loving Peter Bernstein’s playing. He has a dignified and patient approach that speaks of a deep lineage to the great jazz guitarists of the past but he also brings a modern sensibility to the interactions with the other players.

In the car, I listen to Radio National most of the time. It’s something about the sound of Phillip Adams’s voice that makes me hate battling traffic a little less. Does that give me away as being the ‘old dog’?