Adam Rudegeair: “There is life after Ziggy”

adamNeon Bogart, Bourbon Street to Brunswick Street, Lake Minnetonka, Glasfrosch, Bayou Tapestry – just naming the various projects that Adam Rudegeair is involved in can be challenging. One of them has gained momentum in an unexpected way, as the majestic “David Bowie Is” exhibition at the ACMI has become one of the major artistic events in Melbourne. A Bowie exhibition store would normally be the last place one would expect to find a jazz album, but The Bowie Project is not a normal jazz album. It’s an inspired re-imagining and re-interpretation of Bowie’s brilliant songbook, that bears proof of Adam Rudegeair’s own brilliance as a pianist, arranger and jazzman. Why Bowie? How did you decide to do a jazz version of his songbook?

Adam Rudegeair: I came to Bowie though many friends and acquaintances who were big fans. I wasn’t immediately taken with his voice or style. The first thing that struck me was how unusual his chord progressions and the structures of the songs were. Even when he is doing a particular ‘style’, like Philadelphia Soul or whatever, there is a definite individuality to those elements. I wanted to understand it I guess, and understand Bowie’s compositional side – as opposed to his costumes or iconography. I feel his contribution to popular music as a composer is at least as significant as his stylistic choices. I try to explore all eras. There is life after Ziggy, I believe. As a jazz musician, I wanted to find ways to improvise around the material, but also to keep the stronger elements of the songs like hooks and melodies, as opposed to just soloing over a set of chord changes.

AJN: How did you approach his material?

AR: I felt each tune offered a different opportunity to explore the basic question: “what is jazz”? Obviously, the songs weren’t going to be from the Great American songbook! So, what defines it, if not the repertoire? Our arrangement of Underground from Labyrinth is very much inspired by the way the Ted Vining Trio plays ballads, as well as the openness of the Bernie McGann Trio. I’ve got a reharmonised version of Valentine’s Day which owes a debt to Herbie Hancock and also modern gospel players like Cassandra O’Neal. Aladdin Sane was a great way for me to get a bit more avant garde, but Mike Garson is definitely putting some Latin piano chops into the original solo. You can hear little montunos and very blues based riffs creeping in, so I built on that. We have a new arrangement of Space Oddity which sounds to me like New York jazz from today, with shifting time signatures and a very straight groove. When we do the next album we’re going to have a New Orleans second line brass band version of Oh, You Pretty Things. Each tune has so many little hooks and riffs and great ideas, and usually one will suggest what the style, or what elements of jazz I could deploy. Of course, once I think of the general shape of the arrangement, my band are great at helping me refine it and making it way better than it ever could have been if I were on my own.

AJN: What is your favourite Bowie song?

AR: I would have to say this week I’m really vibing on New Killer Star from Reality. There are some 20 minute tracks which are outtakes from the Outside album, that would definitely be up there with my favourite Bowie music.

AJN: Is there any song that you wanted to include in the album but, forsome reason, couldn’t?

AR: I recorded a solo piano version of Loving the Alien, but it felt a little tentative. I’ll have another crack at it for the next record. Then the tape’s rolling, you sometimes find it difficult to relax. Red light fever gets you!

AJN: If you could travel in time and get the chance to play in a Bowiealbum, what would you choose? Why? How would you imagine thisexperience to be?

AR: I reckon I’d play on Outside. It’s a fascinating concept album with a sci-fi noir storyline. In the “Bowie Is” exhibition at ACMI I saw a comic book cover Bowie had illustrated that was tied into this album. The world needs more hard-boiled future detective Bowie. He obviously intended to explore the world further but for some reason never came back to it. Dilletante.

AJN: What did you discover about yourself during this process?

AR: That I was more worried about what the ‘jazz police’ would think of the record than what the Bowie fans would think. Fortunately I’ve had a great response from both camps. I’ve also learned a lot about arranging for two horns and a piano trio to get a great range of textures and timbres. Again, I have to mention the band, Thom Mitchell on drums, Adam Spiegl on bass, Daimon Brunton on trumpet and Luke Carbon on sax. They’ve given a lot of time to workshopping this material to make it very nuanced, but also pretty groove based. Hopefully, whether you’re a casual fan or a highly trained musician, it’s still accessible and exciting to listen to.

AJN: You are involved in many projects, very different from one another.How easy is it for you to focus?

AR: I’m great at focusing at one thing for an intense period, then completely flipping and diving into a different project. I wish I could clone myself and focus on everything all the time.

AJN: What does it take for a project/ bandto fascinate you?

AR: I have to feel that they’re not just doing the first thing that came into their head, that in some way they’re trying to have an original voice, even if it’s within a very defined stylistic boundary. I bristle at lazy lyrics.

AJN: How did you get into jazz?

AR: I heard a lot of jazz growing up. My mother isn’t a musician, but she loves jazz and I knew a lot of standards by the time I was a teenager. I particularly liked any piano player with New Orleans flavours in their playing (Harry Connick, James Booker, John Medeski), even though I couldn’t name that style at the time. I had a parallel interest in funk; I spent a lot of the ’90s scouring record stores trying to find Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament, and other funk bands I had heard of but never listened to. It wasn’t like it is now, where you can find almost anything instantly.

AJN: Who are your heroes?

AR: Prince would be my greatest musical inspiration for so many reasons. Free thinkers, like Sun Ra, Thelonious Monk, Roland Kirk also float my boat. In popular music, I love David Byrne and Janelle Monae; my partner, Jennifer Kingwell, is a constant wellspring of inspiration and support, as is Justin Ashworth from Glasfrosch, who also plays bass for me when I do original funk gigs. Henry Manetta is Australia’s greatest blues singer, and I love him because he doesn’t know how to compromise artistically. He literally couldn’t, if he wanted to. He’s like Gort from the Day the Earth Stood Still. Incorruptible. Lastly, the Sedergreens have been a very important family in my musical life.

AJN: What is your greatest ambition?

AR: To keep playing, learning, travelling, listening and collaborating with inspiring and amazing artists everywhere. To be able to do The Bowie Project, Lake Minnetonka, Glasfrosch, Bayou Tapestry, Neon Bogart and all my other projects and have them keep evolving and finding an audience.


Adam Rudegeair will present “The Bowie Project” live at the Paris Cat Jazz Club, on Wednesday 12 August.