An energetic, lyrical pianist with a few stories to tell, Brenton Foster recently released an album of wonderful, heartwarming compositions, performed in his distinctive laid-back, seemingly effortless style, and backed by a great band (Tom Jovanovic on trumpet, Gideon Brazil on sax, Nick Pietsch on trombone, Matt Clohesy on bass and Kenneth Salters on drums). As he prepares to launch the album with a series of concerts, he shares the story behind it, as well as his views on jazz, music and the challenge of relocating to a new city.
AustralianJazz.net: How did ‘Two Cities’ come to be?
Brenton Foster: ‘Two Cities’ is a record that I began in New York City in 2012 and finished in Melbourne in 2015. The ‘Two Cities’ concept, however, is actually referring to NYC and my hometown of Adelaide.
The trigger point was an amazing Christmas present from my (now) wife of a recording session at Eastside Sound in Manhattan, for my upcoming trip to the USA in 2012. I had toyed with the idea of recording in NYC, but that gift gave me the confidence to do so on a much grander scale.
The inspiration for the concept came while planning my trip to the US while still living my normal life in Adelaide. Having dreamt of visiting NYC for years, I was imagining all that connected and separated the two cities. I wanted to represent that in a collection of songs, half of which I would write in Adelaide and the other half in NYC. I wanted to write about personal things – places and people that meant something to me. I actually only finished writing the final song for the album a few days before recording in Manhattan.
AJN: How did this experience translate to music?
BF: For ‘Two Cities’ I tried to capture the essence of each place I was writing about – the mood of it, the feel of it, how it inspired me, etc. The opening track, ‘Heller va Feller’, for example, was written after a couple of days in NYC. I wanted to capture the heartbeat of the city at ground level with tense and fast-paced melodies in the opening section and the stillness of the city perched atop the Rockefeller Centre in Gideon Brazil’s saxophone solo, over a chord progression which almost seamlessly loops over itself, mirroring the pulsating flow of city traffic lights below.
‘Stevens Street’ was written in the back room of my sister’s house – looking over the sunbathed washing line and rose bushes – I tried to represent that happy, suburban lifestyle.
The midway point of the record was also the midway point of my travels – an amazing lakeside cabin in the Colorado Rockies, overlooking Lake San Cristobal. It was a truly majestic place and moved me to write a simple, lyrical melody that would feature solo piano, paying tribute to some of sounds of Americana.
AJN: How do you find your place in an ever-shrinking world? Where do you feel most at home?
BF: I’m an Adelaide ex-pat. I live in Melbourne and have done so for nearly four years – it really feels like home to me. In saying that, it took me a long time to get my confidence in a new city. It takes time to meet new people, make friends, get into good creative habits – but I feel like I’m there now, or at least close.
The internet has made the world really small. ‘Two Cities’ could really be called ‘Three Continents’ (maybe doesn’t have the same ring to it), because it was made all over the world. It was written and recorded in Australia and America, mixed in Australia, mastered in England and manufactured in Germany.
AJN: How would you describe your music to someone who’s not familiar with it?
BF: Jazz meets pop in a singer/songwriter aesthetic. I wasn’t raised on Miles Davis or Herbie Hancock and so my preference is to write songs – whether they be instrumental or have lyrics. I’m drawn by singable melodies and sweet chord progressions that have a groove to them. I’d like to think that my music is accessible to most audiences, without trying to appeal to any one demographic.
AJN: New York is often described as ‘the mecca of jazz’. Do you agree? Can any city claim jazz?
BF: New York has always played a defining role in jazz; however, I wouldn’t agree that it can claim the music, at least not anymore. Jazz is too universal. I think this is a testament to the its purity as an art form – that it influences culture worldwide. New York’s real strength is its musicians – the countless number of artists who offer the highest quality performances every night of the week across hundreds of venues. The vibrancy of Melbourne’s music scene is very similar. Melbourne has a lot of stuff going on all the time and there are so many amazing musicians who keep me motivated to work hard and grow as an artist.
AJN: What is the distinctive feature of Australian jazz?
BF: Australian jazz is as varied as the people that play it. In saying that, Australians are renowned for a laid-back, casual approach to life. I feel like the jazz that we produce is as powerful and considered as anywhere. I’m constantly blown away by local musicians and reminded that honesty, creativity, dedication – all essentials of a jazz musician – are not exclusive to any one place.
AJN: What does jazz mean to you?
BF: To me, the essence of jazz is freedom. The ability to improvise and surprise even myself; the chance to connect to music at a visceral level, one in which I lose all sense of outside awareness and perspective, is an incredibly moving experience. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it reignites the spark that makes the pursuit worthwhile!
I discovered jazz while at high school – we had a fantastic bandleader. At the same time, I had a great piano teacher who introduced me to Herbie, Chick, Miles, et al. She helped me to prepare for the jazz course at Adelaide University, where I studied with some wonderful teachers and alongside some amazing young musicians, many of whom I’m privileged to call colleagues as well as friends. Music study breeds a certain fellowship, which makes the process all the more enjoyable.
AJN: Who are your heroes?
BF: I’m influenced by a pretty diverse collection of artists – from jazz heavies to current pop artists to country songwriters. Of course, there are the stalwarts, who will continue to inspire me for years to come: Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau, Bruce Hornsby, Billy Joel, John Mayer, Robert Glasper, Tom Waits and Matthew Sheens are some of those that come to mind.
I’m also continually discovering new people who inspire some part of my creative spirit. Some recent sources of inspiration have come from the writer Austin Kleon and paintings by Mark Rothko, musicians Esbjörn Svennson, Tord Gustavsen, Shai Maestro and Bonnie Raitt. I’ve also really enjoyed listening to some fantastic Australian musicians in Luke Howard, Tom O’Halloran and James Bowers.
AJN: If music is the answer, what is the question?
BF: What is it that demands that we pause and focus on the world around us? What is it that, in an increasingly fractured, frightened and fearful world, ignites hope and compassion across culture, language and geographic divides? What is that promotes a shared understanding and expression of the creative human spirit? What is that expects nothing of us but manages to capture and develop our best selves? What develops friendships, builds community and creates a sense of belonging? To these, and so many more, music.
AJN: Which song best describes your current state of mind?
BF: From my album: