Julien Wilson: ‘Music is the best way I know of accessing the spirits’

Julien Wilson is a man on a mission. Along with Zac Hurren, he is currently on tour, preaching the gospel of the late, great David Ades; two superb, inventive saxophonists honoring the memory of their ingenious counterpart, friend and mentor, by playing material from his astonishing swan song, A life in a Day, the album that he recorded in New York (with Tony Malaby, Mark Helias and Gerald Cleaver), prior to his death. The tour is a very emotional, posthumous launch of the album, that was released by Wilson’s own label – and has been gathering great reviews, both in Australia and abroad.

The release coincided with that of his own latest album, This Narrow Isthmus, a recording that finds him in top form, surrounded by a stellar band: Barney McAll on piano, Jonathan Zwarz on bass and another astonishing artist whose demise left a huge void in the Australian jazz scene; Allan Browne.

So yes, it seems that Julien Wilson knows a thing or two about loss – and how to overcome it, through music. It’s a good thing that he’s willing to share them with the rest of us.

Julien Wilson holding his saxophone
Julien Wilson | Photo: Gerard Anderson

How did you decide to take on the task of releasing A life in a day on your label?

Obviously, this album had to be released. It represents the culmination of a lifetime’s work. Dave’s family, the band and I considered and approached a few labels in Australia and one in Portugal. My label was only founded a week or so before Dave’s funeral. I set it up exclusively to release my own recordings and I wasn’t convinced I could generate the profile and exposure I thought Dave’s music deserved. It became increasingly apparent though that if I was to be the middle man anyway, I might as well step up to the plate. That seemed to me to be the only way I could be confident that the presentation of the album would honestly represent Dave and be done with respect to his family’s wishes. Quite honestly, next to speaking at my father’s funeral, this is probably the most delicate and difficult task I’ve ever taken on. The tipping point was bumping in to Dave’s partner, Claire, in Melbourne last June. I’d written to one of the labels two days prior to gauge their interest and had no response. I’d just come out of the Alfred Hospital after seeing Alan Browne for the last time and Claire approached me on the street. This has multiple levels of meaning, as I never visit that part of town and Claire lives in Northern NSW. I’ve adopted a disbelief in coincidences over the last few years, so we agreed to move forward right there. We hooked up a couple of times over the next week to discuss details and presentation. (During that time, she sent me a picture of Al and Dave that she took at Wangaratta Jazz Festival in 2012 and asked if that was the friend I’d been visiting. I have it on my wall and I had it on my stand at the gig we played at Wangaratta and I’m tearing up on the plane now just thinking about it. Their smiling faces are etched in to my mind.) I worked on gathering and collating all the information and artwork between June and October. It took ages to track down the cover photo we wanted to use and at one point it appeared the master CD was lost. Luckily, Mark Helias visited during that period, so we got to meet up and discuss details in person and just share stories about Dave, which helped a lot. Mark and Claire were really incredible throughout the whole process in their dedication to making Dave’s music available. After my initial trepidation, of the four albums in the lionsharecords catalogue this is the one I’m the proudest of.

When did you first listen to the material?

Mark sent me a compressed version of the album early in 2014 to send to labels that may be interested (he refused to send the full master). I was blown away by the music. The communication amongst the band is on a whole other level from the previous album and the writing is in another realm. I can’t remember the actual first listen. I’m sure I cried and laughed and screamed out loud and said a lot of unrepeatable things in my room alone late that night. I had it on in the car for months. I do distinctly remember listening to the first copy I got back from the manufacturers. Apart from listening once to the master with my super critical fault finding radar on, I hadn’t heard the full definition album. I love the way the album starts, with just Dave’s voice then Mark and Gerald joining him. I couldn’t believe how good the sound was! It seemed to explode out of the speakers and engulf the whole room.

What was the most challenging aspect of working on it?

Writing the liner notes was the hardest. It took ages to start, then I just wrote and wrote and wrote. It was obviously hard for Mark and Ruth too, as it took ages. When I got theirs, I had to remove a lot of what I’d written that doubled up. Then I tried to remove myself as much as possible along with what I considered to be overly emotional or personal or irrelevant information. The writing really helped me deal with the loss of my friend, but a lot of it wasn’t really appropriate or necessary as liner notes for Dave’s album. I ended up with way too much material and had to leave a lot out, including some other people’s contributions. Some of those words and photos are on the bandcamp page. I kept asking myself: “Does this help the music? What would he think if he read this? How will his friends and family feel about it? How does it all fit together to tel the story of A Life In A Day? Does it leave enough space and light around Dave?” His music is heavy, but Dave radiated light and space and warmth.

What has been the most rewarding?

Dave’s friends sharing with me how listening to the music has affected them. His brother calling me out of the blue after hearing the album. The relationship I’ve formed with his sister Ruth through this experience. Getting a five star review and knowing it brought the reviewer to tears. Working through all the stages for the artwork and design with Luke Fraser and knowing he put in so much extra effort above and beyond even though he didn’t know Dave. Getting two emails the day BEFORE the album was launched requesting distribution to shops and radio stations I’d never heard of in Belgium and Canada. Been contacted by friends of Dave’s I’d never met who shared stories and photos with me. He was very loved.

How did this experience affect you?

It’s been a very deep journey into the world of a friend I love like a brother. Strengthening bonds with lots of his other friends has helped me feel closer to him.

What do you want the world to know about David Ades?

He had a big heart, a sharp wit, a disarming smile and a laugh that could wash away all the world’s problems. He was honest but generous. He had the most glorious alto sound in the world. He was an inspiration and dear friend to so many. Women especially loved him. He was a humanist. I’ve lost count of the amount of people who said they felt an instant connection with Dave.

What have you learnt from him?

He taught me through actions, not words.
Love will find a way. Live life to the fullest. Be honest to yourself and kind to those around you. Make the most of the time you have (aka: Don’t fuck around man – get to the point).

On top of releasing the album, you are now touring Australia for the launch, playing his music. How do you approach this tribute?

Zac Hurren and David Ades

Zac Hurren, another very close friend of Dave’s has organised all these gigs. Playing with Dave’s friends, especially in Dave’s hometown, Bangalow, is really special. I can’t play like Dave. Nobody can. I can only play like me. I had a couple of his mouthpieces and Zac suggested I play alto for the tour but really my voice is on the tenor and that’s where I can pay the most respect to Dave, while being as true as possible to myself at the same time. The great thing about the music Dave wrote was that he consciously left things very open in the blowing to enable different musicians to bring their own personalities and styles in to the music. The material is just a conversation starter really. We’ll be playing compositions from his last two albums to honour Dave’s music and give listeners a sense of what to expect on the album, but we’re looking beyond the notes to access and pay tribute to his creative spirit and the inspiration that he gave us all.

In the meantime, you have your own album out. Do you feel that you have put your music on hold

One of the main reasons I held off on releasing Dave’s album is a fear that the time and energy it would take to do it justice would detract from my own projects; and to a certain extent, that’s been true. But I released my quartet album simultaneously. The fact that it features Allan Browne and the connection between these two albums that I mentioned before means it made sense to do them concurrently. Mine has taken a back seat for the moment, but I’m fine with that. My quartet has become a quintet. You can’t just replace someone. So Carl Dewhurst has joined the band, as well as Hamish Stuart. We’re launching it in Sydney on March 12th. I also have my regular quartet, ‘B for Chicken’; we’re long overdue to make an album!

How did you come up with the title ‘This Narrow Isthmus’?

It’s from a poem by Thomas Moore.”This Narrow Isthmus twixt two boundless seas./ The past the present, two eternities.” To me, it means that the time we have together is very brief and to be treasured. It came from the word ‘twixt’ which Allan sent me in a text message when we were both inpatients.

JWQListening to the albums, neither David Ades nor Allan Browne sound like frail men, weakened by health problems. On the contrary, their playing is intense and vigorous. To your knowledge, how did they manage to overcome their difficulties to deliver such performances?

You don’t play the music. The music plays you. So, if the music tells you to go somewhere, that’s what you have to do. There’s a famous story about Allan that I can’t repeat here but the punchline is: “no-one tells me to take it easy.” These guys didn’t live to play music. They lived because they played music. Music literally kept them alive. They both defied doctor’s orders to play. Dave didn’t get radiotherapy because he knew that would make him “a patient” and that would stop him playing. Al was advised not to go out and play gigs every night. Physical gigs, where he had to load his drums in and out! He basically said: “If I don’t go out, that’s it. It’s over.” The last gig I did with him was a few days after the CD launch for Ithaca Bound. He played like a man possessed. He even stopped the whole band on the last tune (a Monk blues) to accompany himself singing the ’20s hit ‘Tight like that’. We were gobsmacked. Mark Helias told me that Dave went so hard on the day of the recording that “Malaby had to hold him back a couple times.” Dave said that, despite all the pain he was in, on that day he was pain free. Music, by its very nature, lifts the spirit and liberates the soul, but it requires 100 percent commitment to take you to that place. Of course, after the spirit of the music stops, when the gig is over, the physical body pays the price for that abandon.

To my ears, This Narrow Isthmus is paired with Allan Browne’s Ithaca bound – even the titles suggest large journeys by sea. If this conversation took place with words instead of music, what would the topic be?
That’s a good question but one that I’d have to answer with music; sorry. This Narrow Isthmus seemed to be a good match for the James Joyce quote on Al’s bass drum”: ‘Hold to the now through which all future plunges into the past’.

What do you miss the most about Allan Browne?
Everything. I wrote at length about it all, when he died. It helped me then immensely. I can’t do it again now. You know, they both had great souls and wicked sharp senses of humour. I miss laughing with them the most. We were blessed to spend time with these men. We knew their time was finite so each moment was treated with an irreverent but deep gratitude. It’s all about perspective. Listening to Bowie’s Blackstar before and after he died is really deep. I haven’t been able to escape the parallels between the two Davids.
In your album, you also pay tribute to Bernie McGann; it seems that you have found yourself in a peculiar position, surrounded by the spirits of great, late musicians. Is music a kind of alternative reality, in which death does not exist?
My father died six years ago. He was 65. Then these guys all followed. And so many more (‘Weeping Willow’ is for Gil Askey). I guess when lots of your mates start checking out, it’s just a sign that you’re getting older and are lucky to have older, wiser friends. But yeah, music is the best way I know of accessing the spirits. And the best way I can pay tribute to them as well.


Julien Wilson & Zac Hurren

day14th January – Brisbane JMI8pm – w/ Sam Maguire and Greg Sheehan
15th January – BangalowBowlo 8.30pm- w/ Sam Maguire and Greg Sheehan
16th January – MIJF Summer Sessions – 2 shows @ 7.30 & 10pm w/ Sam Anning & Danny Fischer
17th January – Jazzgroove Festival Foundry616, Sydney 9.30pm w/ Cameron Undy & Simon Barker
18th January – Adelaide COMA @ The Wheatsheaf 8pm w/ Marty Holoubek & Hugh Harvey
19th January – Perth @ The Ellington 8pm w/ Pete Jeavons & Ben Vanderwal