James Mustafa: “an evening promoting the Australian Songbook, what more could you want!”

1934790_598174577008427_4717741822972423630_nBrilliant composer, daring arranger, fearless multi-instrumentalist, James Mustafa is not one to say “no” to a challenge. It is with this kind of attitude that he’s about to present “the Australian Songbook“, a celebration of the best in Australian songwriting, performed by a stellar roster of singers. The concert will be the opening of this year’s Stonnington Jazz Festival and the arranger can’t hide his excitement, in the prospect of turning it into a bold statement for Australian Jazz.

AustralianJazz.net: What is the Australian Songbook?

James Mustafa: The Australian Songbook has been a little idea in the back of my head for many years now – an evening promoting Australian music whilst highlighting some of my favourite creative vocalists, what more could you want! It’s no secret to many that I love working with large ensembles – particularly string ensembles where the warmth and colours seem never ending. Being classically trained, I explored harmony, orchestration and compositions of romantic greats such as Gustav Holst and Arnold Schoenberg and it’s been a sound I’ve never been able to leave behind even in my pursuit within the improvising world. This was the perfect project to once again arrange a musical amalgamation between the classical and contemporary worlds. Earlier in the year, I approached Stonnington with the concept. It was an idea they loved so much it was elected to be the opening night festival highlight, a true honour, I can assure you.

AJN: How did you choose the songs included in the project?

JM: I actually only had a small part in the selected repertoire. We gave the vocalists a brief of the performance and together we discussed various song ideas. They ranged from traditional folk numbers, to pop tunes to contemporary classics. Of course, Stonnington also contributed a few song and musical ideas of their own – and together we’ve ended up with a diverse yet accessible program. Many artists and tunes I wished to highlight have been excluded purely because of time constraints. Unfortunately, I also doubt there will be a next time to mix around the program due to the budget and admin enormity of a project like this.

AJN: What do these songs mean to you, personally?

JM: Without giving too much away, some of the songs I was already quite familiar with whilst others have been completely new to me. At a festival such as Stonnington, it is important to have a program that can reach a wide variety of listeners – so, our program is structured to achieve just that. The selected tunes by Gian Slater, Josh Kyle and Clancye Milne are particularly favourites of mine. All three are brilliant songwriters, composers and improvising artists and have music I was already quite familiar with. In the case of Gian, she kindly asked me which of her tunes I’d like to arrange – what a question! How is one meant to choose out of such an inspiring repertoire of music? The festival has given me the chance to work with three other vocalists that I would not have had opportunity to do so otherwise. These include jazz luminary Wilma Reading, cabaret artist Mama Alto and funk/soul singer (and Artistic Director of Stonnington Jazz) Chelsea Wilson. They have bought their own personal flavour to the program, which has been equally delightful to indulge and create music with.

AJN: How did you approach the material?

JM: Each arrangement has presented its own set of unique challenges and musical flavours. Like most projects I do, I began by listening to the selected repertoire for a few weeks first – allowing myself time to mull over a variety of compositional techniques that may compliment the tune/artist. I then take to the piano where I sketch out rough ideas and record myself playing/singing different ideas on my phone. Once I have a good impression of the arrangement, I’ll draw a form map and get work in Sibelius by means of keyboard input. It has been extremely rewarding to work with strings and rhythm section – something I haven’t done since my second year recital when I was still at Monash University a few years back. As I am still only about a third of the way through the arrangements (with a few days to go until rehearsal!), I am really looking forward to getting together for the first time to hear the singers, strings and rhythm section all come together to create the music I’ve spent hours donning from my head to paper. It’s always exceedingly rewarding in this regard.

AJN: What does each singer bring to the equation?

JM: As stated, the vocal talent is rather astounding. This unique combination of brilliant creatives will fashion a performance exclusive to this festival and craft something that will be reminisced for seasons to come. Wilma Reading is an Australian jazz legend who has some of the most admirable stage charisma and experience the world has to offer. It has been a real thrill to have an opportunity to work with her in this regard. I have been a serious supporter of Gian’s music since I first heard it five or so years ago. Since then we’ve worked together in Invenio and my own ensemble (The James Mustafa Jazz Orchestra) and have finally reached this project, which will be a real unification of our creative ideas. Gian brings vocal talent and artistry of the highest order to this project and something I feel really honoured to be a part of. Vocalists Josh Kyle and Clancye Milne are serious talents in the Australian improvising scene, both of which are deeply profound, creative and honest performers. Their songs I’m sure will truly move the audiences during the opening night performance. Mama Alto and Chelsea Wilson are highly experienced performers, both superb at drawing the audience in to their shows and entertaining at a very high standard.

In relation to creating the music to accompany each singer, I have spent sometime listening to their albums, attending their gigs and spending time on their respective Soundcloud pages. This was all in aim of focusing in on the specific elements that makes each performer that performer. I hope to have captured these elements in my arrangements of the tunes.

AJN: Given that this will be the opening act of the Stonington Jazz Festival, is there a statement to be made for Australian Jazz?

JM: I would like to think that it is exactly that – a statement for Australian Jazz music. It is so important that we as a country and culture embrace, promote and encourage original Australian music – whether in the classical, contemporary, improvised or commercial scenes of music. This is a whole issue and discussion in itself and something I’ll only touch on lightly for now. In Melbourne we have great platforms such as the Melbourne Jazz Co-Op, the Melbourne Improvisers Collective, Lebowskis and the Melbourne Composers Big Band – all dedicated to the advancement of our homegrown music and artists. Recent progressions such as the Australian Jazz Real book have also been sensational steps forward in the right direction towards promotion of Australian music. I don’t think there is a battle as such between the traditional American standards versus our own, for without it, the whole improvised world may not exist in the same manner it does today. To me it’s always been an equality issue. Why is it that we constantly see orchestras, artists and musicians investing in productions of “The Marriage Of Figaro”, recordings of Duke Ellington classics and tours by the still-going-strong Glenn Miller Orchestra? I think we require a culture shift where both the artists and audiences should start trusting, believing and supporting in our own music as the first priority – as it only takes a quick look at the improvising scene to see that we have some of the best instrumentalists, composers and artists in the world. It’s something I’m very proud to be a part of and something I think we should all be celebrating.

AJN: If you could choose one Australian artist/ composer to build a concert around his/her body of work, who would that be?

JM: I buy a lot of music – probably too much as I’ve now filled my 3rd bookshelf with CDs (this of course has nothing of Australian music supporter extraordinaire Martin Jackson!). If you’re an Australian artist who’s released an album in the last three years or so, your disc is probably sitting snuggled in on my shelf. I am constantly blown away by our local talent and it makes answering this question truly impossible. However, if I were to fairly answer this question, I would have to choose one of our true national treasures, Vince Jones. I had the privilege of arranging some music for an album Vince recorded a few years back with the music faculty at Monash University. His music rings live with such spirit, passion and creativity – all with a flavour that is so distinctively Australian. A dream of mine has been to record an album featuring Vince alongside a full symphony orchestra and rhythm section, singing folk/jazz material – in a similar vein of 2000 album “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell. It’s just a silly dream, but something I still fantasize about regularly.

AJN: In your opinion, what is the main trait of Australian jazz, something that distinguishes if from jazz in other countries?

JM: Another really tough question! Like most of us, I’ve read and joined in on the increasingly more common Facebook discussions were someone has asked the ultimate “what makes Australian jazz music distinctly Australian?” question. They spark a good discussion but nothing is ever really concluded. I think the best way I can answer this is by highlighting a few artists that seem to possess that fundamental Australian sound to me, and then perhaps someone else can answer why that is! Dirty Aussie Trad bands such as Red Onions Jazz Band, the Hoodangers, and – much newer on the scene – the Lagerphones possess that uniquely Australian flavour in seemingly every note they play. Some contemporary instrumentalists such as Julien Wilson, James Greening and Scott Tinkler also give me that Aussie music feeling. There are obviously too many to mention but even more subtly are music gems such Graeme Lyall, Tony Gould and John Sangster – some real pioneers of Australian music.

AJN: What does jazz mean to you?

JM: Jazz to me is improvised and creative music. Can I define it any better than that? Probably not. When I listen to Timothy Stevens solo on the piano, Paul Williamson on the trumpet or Dale Barlow weave the magic that he does on the tenor, that feels like what jazz is to me. In the same regard, when I listen to Peter Knight on laptop, the Marc Hannaford trio or Jo Lawry sing, it all conjures up that same emotion I get when listening to deep creative and personal music. That is jazz to me – as vague as that is.

AJN: Which song best describes your current state of mind?

JM: “Send In The Clowns” – Stephen Sondheim

*”The Australian Songbook” will take place on Thursday 12 May, at the Malvern Town Hall.