By John Shand
Many musicians might share Matt McMahon’s catholic listening habits, but few have allowed those habits to migrate into their actual playing to the same degree. In fact I doubt there is another Australian player who routinely turns up in such diverse contexts. As well as being a preeminent pianist in jazz and freer improvisational contexts McMahon has played folky pop with singer-songwriter Robyne Dunn, traditional Irish songs with his late brother Michael, Korean-flavoured music with Simon Barker, the challenging Arabic-infused compositions of oud virtuoso Joseph Tawadros, flamenco with Bandaluzia Flamenco, funk with Steve Clisby, Peter Sculthorpe’s music with Phil Slater and much more.
Ostensibly these are incredibly disparate areas of musical endeavour, but McMahon says that they feel less and less so. ‘The more I play the more music becomes about individuals, and less about genres,’ he observes. ‘It’s about that person and that relationship, and what chord is this and what scale is this, rather than thinking about the genre of the music.’
As the years have passed it is as though McMahon has unlocked not so much the doors to individual idioms, but the big door to music as a whole. ‘I’m always trying to be intuitive with the choices, to not think too systematically,’ he says. ‘I will when practising, but on a gig I just think, “For good or evil I’m here and I’m just going to play music, and it’s going to come out like this, and for some of you it might be too jazzy or not exactly right.’ He has myriad tools at his disposal, ‘but it’s trying to find the one that’s going to make the music speak, and in the end it just comes down to an improvised decision.’
McMahon says that the challenge is not so much to hang on to one’s identity in diverse contexts, but to play what feels natural and appropriate. ‘It’s an uncomfortable feeling a lot of the time,’ he admits, ‘because you’re not playing on your home turf.’ He agrees that there can be an interesting dialectic between being relaxed enough to produce one’s best work, and being on edge enough to produce something that might not otherwise have materialised.
Solo Piano and Inner Voices
By contrast McMahon’s new album could not be more on home turf: The Voyage of Mary and William (named for his forbears who sailed to Australia from Ireland) is a collection of solo piano improvisations, the most common format in which he plays at home. The tracks were recorded while McMahon was making a yet-to-be-released new trio album. ‘I just stole a couple of hours from that session. I didn’t go into the studio thinking, “I’m going to release an album of solo piano”, but in a way I like that because it removes the pressure.’
Psychologically that was a clever trick to have played on himself, given the mind games that may afflict musicians when the recording light comes on. ‘It’s uncanny how many times you can get into a studio and everyone’s relaxed and playing well, and as soon as it’s time for “Take One” all these strange things are happening,’ he says. ‘I’m better at it, but I think it’s hard to avoid. Trying to be as natural as possible in the studio is difficult, but it’s part of the game.’
In addition to the nerves and self-doubt come the critical internal voices trying to alter the natural unfolding of the improvising. ‘The older I get the better I am at not listening to them,’ says McMahon, ‘and not having that judging faculty. It’s still there, but I’m better at ignoring it.’ More positive is the accumulated experience that informs the instinct for which path to pursue at any given moment. ‘I guess it’s like driving,’ he suggests. ‘All these experiences are encapsulated in this one moment when you’re turning the car, but hopefully it’s internalised and you don’t have to think about it.’
Like driving, too, improvising can be a high-risk activity. ‘You may end up with something really interesting, or you may end up with something that doesn’t really quite feel right on the night,’ he says. ‘It has nothing to fall back on.’ Nonetheless McMahon likes as little arrangement and as much improvising as possible, as do many of his main collaborators, including singer Vince Jones. ‘One time Vince had a set of lyrics and we walked out on stage and just improvised,’ he recalls. ‘I started playing some chords, and Vince started improvising with the lyrics, which was really fun. I’d love to do more of that, I don’t know how successful it was, but I love that feeling of the spontaneity; leaving things as open as we possibly can…
‘There was a good William Blake line in the ‘Proverbs of Hell’ from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which is “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.” I’ve always liked that. And that’s what happens: sit there and hopefully keep the moments going, but it takes a while to build up the discipline to not stop.’
Back to Basics
Solo piano is potentially weighed down by the baggage of a host of extraordinary precursors, but McMahon shrugs that aside: ‘If you’re going to do anything in life you just have to say, “Well, I’ve just got to make my little patch of garden over here”, and if I’m improvising, try and be faithful from one moment to the next. That’s all I can try and do, otherwise you go crazy.’
Allied to the faithfulness to the moment is the demystifying of the process and the search for simplicity. McMahon once asked the singer Steve Clisby what he had been up to that day: ‘He’d been recording some songs, and he said, “Oh, just making mud pies.” And I thought, “That’s it!” Trying to keep it as simple as just sitting on the beach and slopping these things around. If you keep doing it, and remove the pressure of pitting yourself against all the great stuff that’s ever happened, you can do that. I don’t know if it makes the music better, it just makes the experience more pleasurable. Just like cooking: I’m not taking on Tetsuya, I’m just going to put this much avocado in the salad because I want to!’
The history of jazz is often seen as being one of increasing complexity, but Wayne Shorter once told McMahon of Sonny Rollins’ observation that the challenge for the jazz player was to be more human. ‘And that’s hopefully what I’m trying to get to,’ he says. ‘If there’s such a thing as the truth, to try and let that be.’
The most revered jazz recordings crystallised a moment in time, and McMahon agrees that all one can do is crystallise one’s own moments.
‘That’s kind of what this album is,’ he says. ‘In the face of all this confusion – What should I do? Does jazz have a place any more in the world? What’s the point of doing instrumental music at all? Does it have any function in society? – I try to keep it as personal and simple as going for a walk along the beach.’
The History of Mary and William is out now on PathsandStreams Records.
Matt McMahon launches The Voyage of Mary and William
Friday 6 March at The Sound Lounge, Seymour Centre, Sydney
Thursday 19 March at Bennetts Lane in Melbourne
Saturday 9 May as part of SIMA’s Jazzed Up in Berry
Read a review of The Voyage of Mary and William by John Hardaker
Matt McMahon ‘Island of Destiny’