‘Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.’ Saxophonist Rob Burke recently confirmed Victor Hugo’s quote, when he traveled in New York to record the aptly named “Power of the Idea”, an album of new material. The result, a refreshing collection of songs performed with daring freedom, cemented his status as one of the leading masters of improvised music in Australia. The album will be launched on Tuesday 6 October, as part of the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music. Of course, Rob Bourke is also the co-ordinator of the Jazz Studies department at Monash University, which has given him significant insight into the state of improvised music in Australia.
AustralianJazz.Net: “Power of the Idea” is an assertive celebration of improvised music and daring creativity. Was that your goal from the start?
Rob Burke: My goal was go beyond previous projects and explore a more ‘freer’ approach to improvisation.
After the recording with Kenny Werner, I decided that I needed to go beyond playing more traditional jazz structures and explore how the notion of a musical idea can be improvised without following the traditional parameters and styles.
AJN: How did you choose the musicians you wanted to work with for this project?
RB: I chose musicians that were like minded – I love and I am inspired by the work of Mark Helias and Open Loose (with Tony Malaby on sax) – this is the style of music that I want to play. Nasheet Waits has a history of playing this style of music as does Paul Grabowsky. Jordan Murray and Paul Williamson have the expertise and ‘openness’ to adapt to this style of music – and they did.
AJN: You brought together some of the best Australian jazz musicians with their American counterparts. In what way is the Australian jazz culture different to the American one?
RB: I don’t think there is much difference – The swing and time feel is more of a focus in American jazz, generally. This was not a major component of this project and the Australian musicians in this group have great time feel anyway!
AJN: As an artist, as well as an educator, how do you evaluate the status of improvised music in Australia today?
RB: I think Australian improvised music is as good as anywhere in the world. Artists such as Scott Tinkler and Paul Grabowsky are leaders in the field.
AJN: What is the single most important thing that you wish to teach your students?
RB: I teach my students the importance of expertise and creativity/musicality. I teach them that their ‘voice’ is a combination of how advanced their technical ability is in combination with their life experience; who they listened to; analyse; self reflection; how they listen to the the sonic environment; musical honesty; trust.
AJN: As someone who is involved in the academic aspect of jazz, how do you dismiss the claims that jazz is becoming more and more ‘academic’?
RB: Just some thoughts: a student who studies jazz at a University is surrounded by like-minded musicians; this is a great ‘melting pot’ for students to be deeply involved in music.
AJN: “Power of the Idea” has been described as ‘groundbreaking’. Is pushing boundaries part of your creative process?
RB: I was very pleased with this feedback. I feel that I now have the expertise, musicality and understanding of what could be described as ‘groundbreaking’ as part of my role as a performer and academic. A practice-based artistic research situates our research to ‘find’ our place for new knowledge.
AJN: Is there truly room for innovation in jazz today?
RB: I am a believer in innovative music; there is always ‘room’ for innovation in jazz – we live in a world of change in a pluralistic society, which is reflected in the music we play. The ecology of the music scene is reflected in the music that we hear every day.
AJN: What song best describes your current state of mind?
RB: Mercurochrome – the improvisation – as is an example of how and idea is the basis of the group improvisation.