James Mustafa- Renaissance Man

-By Samuel Cottell

mustafaAt the age of 23, James Mustafa has already made quite a name of himself. Having just been acknowledged as “Young Australian Jazz Artist of the Year” at the 2015 Bell awards, for his debut album, The Last Sanctuary, as the leader of own group, the James Mustafa Jazz Orchestra, he is building on the momentum.

Based in Melbourne, Mustafa started his musical explorations of jazz as a high school student. Prior to this, he was largely interested in classical music, until he was asked to play trombone in the school’s jazz band. A synthesis of classical and jazz music soon ensued, and this informs his distinct sound today. “I enjoyed the idea of improvisation more and more”, he says. “(Jazz) music became so much of who I was. I got into fusion music for a little while and I couldn’t stop listening to classical music, like Faure’s Requiem. I was listening in parallel worlds, essentially”

Mustafa’s sound is a coalescence of classical and jazz sounds, two passions which he has cultivated over a number of years. Listening to large orchestral music, particularly Romantic era works, Mustafa loved the way that the parts of the orchestra worked together (and he further explores this in his jazz writing) “It comes back to the fact that I love textures and instrumental colours. I think that is reflective in my playing as well”, he says.

It was the colours I was drawn to most of all”

Mustafa then went on to study at the Generations In Jazz Academy, at the Adelaide University School of Music and at the Sir Zelman School of Music at Monash University. He has studied composition with Paul Grabowsky, Maria Schneider, Graeme Lyall, Lachlan Davidson, Jordan Murray and Pedro Giraudo. Mustafa plays trumpet, trombone, piano and also a variety of woodwinds, brass and other instruments.

Under the mentorship of Graeme Lyall, Mustafa got to listen to five CD’s from Lyall’s collection each week; a turning point came to him one afternoon when Lyall made the class lay on the floor and close their eyes and listen to some music. It was Maria Schneider’s Pretty Road, which Mustafa has listened to every day since that class, having been so inspired by it: “That was what did it for me”, he says. “I don’t think I’ve had another moment like that since, it was a moment that made so much sense, and was completely inspiring. When Lyall explained that it was a big band playing I realised that was how I wanted to write. It had all these wonderful woodwind colours, and the control of a strict large ensemble, with diversities in dynamics and form. Most importantly it had this unbelievable level of sophistication through improvisation”.

Maria Schneider’music allowed Mustafa to look into other composers, such as Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans. Like her music, the term ‘big band’ is problematic in that it suggests. “Even though there may be some similar instrumental similarities to the music of the past and big bands, I believe in the word ‘orchestra’, because of the way that the orchestra sections blur and blend”, says Mustafa.

Mustafa was fortunate to have a ‘lesson’ with Maria Schneider. “She had half an hour to talk about some things and she had a piano and we went through it all and we got right into the piece. She taught so differently to other teachers, but Maria sat down with the music and discussed it with me and we talked about how you might change things, it was like we were collaborating on a piece of music.” The workshop ended up going for four hours; so engaged they were with the musical discussion.

Making the “The Last Sanctuary”

The founder of the Melbourne Jazz Composers Big Band, which was formed in 2012, Mustafa learned the ropes of running a big band in this setting and learned first hand the process of booking a band, running an ensemble and organising performances and musicians, a process that was essential in the creation of his own ensemble. Wanting to feature a concert of his own music, he felt that it would be too much to get the MJBB to do a whole concert of his works. After a meeting with his mentor, James Murray (who performs trombone on the album) to discuss performing a gig of his own music, Mustafa decided that rather than do a gig a recording was the best option for this project.

The formation of the James Mustafa Jazz Orchestra was a natural progression for him. Already with experience and musical craft beyond his years under his belt, he was more than ready for recording with a large ensemble. The pieces featured on the album were written with the performers in mind and Mustafa partly crafted the compositions around these musicians. The musicians, carefully considered, were the way to generate to colours that Mustafa explores in his music: “Everyone on the album, I had done either a couple of gigs, or written for before, or done heaps of stuff before, and this was important to me. People knew how I wrote, and I knew how they played and I think this one of the reasons for the success of the recording”. The musicians on this album double, triple and even quadruple on this album, extending the palette of the jazz sound world.

Mustafa’s working process allows him to explore the rich orchestral colours in his jazz writing: “When it came to the recording I stripped everything back, I totally pulled the scores apart and analysed every single note, line and harmony and tried out all the different things”, says Mustafa of his writing process. “Once I had settled on a chord progression, I then went back and tried the chord progression with every single other chord in place of all the normal chords, so you have more and more colour, but logical colour”.

With all of the music written and the musicians selected it then came time to think about the logistics of putting the recording together. The album was recorded (with no overdubbing) by Ross Cockle at Allan Eaton Studios and mixed at Sing Sing Studios. “Ross was incredible”, says Mustafa. “He wanted to hear recordings of other large ensembles that I liked, he wanted to hear what I was hearing in my head. He then came to all of the rehearsals to listen and watch the ensemble and hear how it wall worked and experience it all”

Mustafa is currently composing several pieces for the Perth International Jazz Festival and a composition for the Monash University Wind Ensemble. He is also the Composer in Residence at Western Australia Youth Jazz Orchestra (WAYJO) this year(2015) and is writing some orchestrations for the show “So It Seems That We Have Met Before”, an evening of Rodgers and Hart music at the Paris Cat. Amidst the managing and administration work of his jazz orchestra, Mustafa is an avid bird watcher who has made a significant contribution to this field in Australia. But that is a whole different story.