Stu Hunter: “Music is the highest form of communication”

Stu Hunter is like a silent assassin, calmly planning his next execution, without anyone taking notice. It happened in 2007, when he presented ‘The Muse’, his first personal album, after years of collaborations as a side-man (spanning next to 60 CDs) to an awe-inspiring array of international projects – Portishead, anyone? – and it happened again in 2010 when ‘The Gathering’ won the Bell Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. His new album, ‘The Migration’, is also a strong contender in this category. It is a breath-taking musical roller-coaster of hard groves and multiple sound textures, challenging the notion of jazz and contemporary improvisation, while attacking the unsuspecting listener with ideas, emotions and images. Just days prior to the official launch of the suite, at the Sydney Festival, next Saturday, the pianist and composer answered some questions about the concept of his album, the creative process, the heavy groove of living – and the role model that is Waleed Aly._MG_0164

AUSTRALIANJAZZ.NET: What is the Migration?
STU HUNTER: The Migration is multi dimensional. It is a celebration, a conversation, a comment and a wish. It is in many ways my own life process put to music. It is about the questions instead of the answers. Conceptually, it is about the movement of ideas and beliefs throughout the course of my life’s journey but also of a bigger picture and the growth and sharing of culture and ideas – especially within an Australian framework. It is about the exploration of long-form composition with the interaction of improvisation and the language shared by musicians who have played and explored music together for years.
AJN: The song titles and lyrics imply an introspective, soul-searching journey. At the same time, the word ‘migration’ is one of the words that are part of the current political and social discourse, in Australia and all over the world. How personal, or political is work this to you?
SH: It is extremely personal to me. My writing is so strongly intertwined in my family and my life, my relationships and – in particular to this project – my beliefs. The Twelve Stages of Freedom is really about my journey from being born into a practicing christian household to a place of personal autonomy and independent thought. Requiem For Belief is more about looking outward, the comment in the music is not so much political as – simply – human. I don’t have any answers to the current situation, I find it heartbreaking and the complexities our politicians and policy makers face I personally find unanswerable. But perhaps the questions to ask might be those that have been hidden and forgotten in our own backyard. If we looked first to mending the missed opportunity of a vigorous and inspired relationship with the first peoples of Australia then perhaps we might be able to imagine a positive way to engage with the rest of the world. MDu Moonshine is an expression of the joy of thinking outside the box and letting go of goals and looking more to creative process.

AJN: In what way is this a continuation of ‘the Gathering’?
SH: The Muse, the Gathering and The Migration are a definite project line. The same amazing musicians have graced all the recordings yet growing in number each time. The records are all an exploration of long form composition (what I like to call a suite) and lying within their harmonic structures and rhythmic scaffolds, I find a definite language that I have been working on and challenging myself with for many years. My approach to the composition of these records has also been uncompromising in satisfying my own desires for what I would like to hear above any other reasoning which hopefully gives it a focus and intent that communicates to listeners.

AJN: You have been working with the same musicians from ‘the Muse’,expanding your band from album to album. Can you describe the dynamics among the group?
SH: The musicians are all long term friends I have known for years. I have played with each of them in many contexts. They are are peers, mentors and mates. I deeply admire them all and I have learnt much from each of them over the years of friendship and music making. They all also make their own incredible music which informs much of my own musical language and development. There is a lot of humour between us and a fierce determination and need to always make the best music we can. It’s a very positive and inspiring dynamic.

AJN: Why did you choose the form of a suite?
SH: The suite form kind of chose me. When I wrote The Muse, the thematic ideas just flowed out of me and it was quickly apparent they all belonged in the one large form. This then became the template for The Gathering and The Migration.

AJN: You have created a dense soundscape, filled with various elements from different genres, seamlessly forming a consistent, personal sound. How would you describe your music to someone not familiar with it?
SH: I would describe it as heart music. There is much complexity in the harmonic and rhythmic structures, however the intention behind any compositional or arranging decision is first and foremost about evoking an emotional response for myself and in the process hopefully the listener. The music is visual and visceral, it’s about dancing and embracing the heavy groove of living.

AJN: What do you think is the direction that jazz, as an art form, should follow to keep evolving and be relevant?
SH: I think any art form needs to lose its self awareness to truly evolve and stay relevant. I don’t try to write jazz and hopefully many people who hear my music don’t consider it to be especially jazz. I actually think the term ‘Jazz’ misrepresents much of the music it is applied to, as the word has so many different meanings to so many people. Jazz means to me a tradition of improvising over and within the context of a composition. For others and especially my heroes, like Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Ahmed Jamal, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins (and the list goes on and on), there is that element, yes, but also a cultural connection that goes back to and through a time of immense hardship and discrimination all the way to slavery. It was the breaking free of that era and standing up for their rights as people that in so many ways made their music so dynamic and powerful. It made people feel something in a strong way. For me, music is perhaps the highest form of communication. For any music or art form to evolve and stay relevant it needs to step outside of it’s own shadow and dream.

AJN: Who are your heroes?
SH: Many of them I just listed in the previous question. I admire and love so many different musicians and artists from almost every genre of music I can think of: Rock, Balkan Gypsy, Folk, Funk, Classical, noise improv, African music, Pop… there are too many and too varied to mention here. I admire many visual artists also. I am very influenced by philosophers and rare thinkers and ordinary people who seem to be connected into a simple and inspiring way to deal with each day. I love creative minds and open thinkers. If I had to pick someone right now, it could be Waleed Aly: a man who can take the incredibly complex and divisive current state of things and explain it in a way that gives hope for a rational and graceful coming together of people and then rip out a tasty Pink Floyd guitar solo. Now, there is a well balanced human.

AJN: What is your greatest ambition?
SH: I hope to always lead a creative life, grow really old with my lady and jam with my children and grandkids on the porch.

AJN: One of your lyrics states: “Watch the cloud dissolve and you will taste your freedom”. What does the ‘cloud’ consist of?
SH: The cloud is ‘the eyes of god’