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James Mustafa: “The Melbourne Big Band Festival will celebrate the diverse, inspiring and kickass large ensemble scene of Australian music”

2555266_origEverybody loves big bands, but James Mustafa loves them a little more. The brilliant composer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist is also the driving force behind the Melbourne Big Band Festival, a new event that aspires to celebrate the diversity of large ensemble music. And there’s a lot to celebrate, apparently. 

AustralianJazz.net: How did the Melbourne Big Band Festival come to be?

James Mustafa: All that know me, know that I am obsessed with ensemble music, particularly large ensemble music including anything from wind symphonies, to choirs and of course, big bands. The reality of today’s society means that there is simply less and less funding being poured into the creative music industries, which results in less opportunities for large (hence expensive) groups to perform. This, I believe, is the number one reason we are seeing less and less promotion for these kind of ensembles, particularly in the jazz world. It is very uncommon to see big bands at jazz festivals and even rarer to see them at other music festivals and events. The big band in particular is a fundamental tool for training the next generation of jazz artists. Students who grew up playing in these ensembles learn ensemble skills, section playing, dynamics, how to read music, often deeper levels or harmony, composition, orchestration and so many other important skills, vital for the standard 21st century musician. Thankfully, we have the Generations In Jazz Festival (SA), co-ordinated by James Morrison to help promote this to our younger audiences, but what about our everyday jazz and music enthusiasts? This is how the Melbourne Big Band Festival idea was born, as a means to promote, educate and celebrate the stunningly diverse, inspiring and kickass large ensemble scene of Australian creative music.

AJN: How does it fit in with the overall Melbourne Festival landscape?

JM: As touched on above, there currently isn’t a outlet, in a festival sense, to really give these ensembles and musicians an opportunity to promote and play what they really love. Ensembles such as ATM15 play regularly enough, the MCBB perform about four times a year, but many others play even less than that again. It’s hard to organise, co-ordinate, build a following and administer such a large group. This festival should do exactly that, by inviting the audiences and music scene into one place for one massive weekend of eclectic and incredible music. I believe that, if cultivated in the right way, the MBBF has the potential to become a serious landmark in the Australian jazz calendar as a unique and wonderful coming together of big bands and large ensembles.

AJN: How did you work on the program?

JM: For the inaugural festival, the ensembles and artists were all ‘invite only’ and there was no formal application process. When starting something new like this, image and reputation is everything, so by us (the committee and I) building what we thought to be an accessible yet diverse program, we have aimed to create a real splash with our first event. Trusting that 2017 goes well, it will be open application to all groups or artists that classify as a creative ensemble. I use that term loosely, as the festival should really be called “The Melbourne Creative Large and Medium sized Ensemble Festival”, but it ends up becoming a bit of a mouthful and not that marketable! In consideration to the program, we wanted a diverse array of what we defined as ‘professional groups’, ‘amateur groups’, ‘tertiary groups’ and ‘school/education groups’. This is a festival for the people and for the scene, so making sure we covered all the different levels was important. Unlike other festivals, we welcome beginners through to the experienced in our performers – we believe this will help to cultivate and promote this kind of music in an all-inclusive healthy environment. It could change a high school students life to be on the same bill as a legendary saxophonist (Roxy Coss) from New York, and that I think is something that is truly special. The biggest challenges was making it all fit into only two days of music and of course keeping everyone happy. It can’t be achieved and my apologies to all that couldn’t be included in the inaugural event. However, trusting that 2017 is a success, we will be expanding to three full days and across more venues for 2018.

AJN: There are not only Big Bands featuring in the program; what kind of quality made them eligible for inclusion?

JM: As mentioned, the festival is more about ensemble playing than specifically ‘big bands’, so a diversity of instrumentations was considered for the program. We also have two performance spaces. The main hall, which will feature all of the large ensembles, and a small outside area which is located in marketplace and food stalls. Here we couldn’t fit anything really bigger than a 5-7 piece group, so I decided to get a selection of different ensembles to play across the weekend. This includes two brass bands, a saxophone quartet, a vocal group, a jazz combo and a trombone quartet – good mix, hey?

AJN: What is your greatest aspiration with this festival?

JM: I have never envisaged this festival suddenly taking over Hamer Hall or spanning for a two week period. Instead I would like to dream that, in a few years time, we can have a full weekend (Fri-Sun) extravaganza that grows from the version that exists today. Perhaps spread across into the park with three or four different performance venues and stages, with twice the size of food/market stalls and perhaps a series of workshops, masterclasses and interviews with visiting artists and local legends/educators. I’d also like to expand to include ensembles from interstate. This can only be achieved by involvement and support from the audience and Melbourne music lovers scene. By having a successful opening season we are more likely to get further funding, wider acclaim and build a large support basis.

AJN: The term ‘Big Band’ brings to mind the ’30s and ’40s swing era, but there is actually great diversity in the scene nowadays, as there are orchestras playing practically every sub-genre of jazz. From your experience, What is the appeal of the big band/ orchestra formation?

JM: The big band orchestration is genius. The instrumentation of five saxes/woodwind, four trombones, 4-5 trumpets and a four – piece rhythm section results in literally countless and millions of different compositional formulas that will never be exhausted, even if every composer in the world was to write for the next thousand years. It also feels good to be in, you’re always supported by your section or by ingenious arranging techniques. There’s room for huge ensemble figures and sparse improvised sections. It all comes down to the writers, leaders and players – and if you have a magic combination of them all, the possibilities are endlessly inspiring.

AJN: There has been a resurgence in Big Bands and jazz orchestras recently, not only in Australia, but internationally. To what do you attribute this?

JM: Personally, I don’t think there has been a huge resurgence in this kind of music. Sure everyone had, or belonged to a big band back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, but for decades on, there’s always been a rich scene of large ensemble music across the globe. In Australia there are a handful of notable big band leaders, people such as Andrew Murray, Mace Francis, David Theak, Jenna Cave and Daryl McKenzie – a few that come immediately to mind – however I don’t believe it is any more or less than what it was 30-plus years ago. One needs only to read about some of the stuff Graeme Lyall, John Sangster, Judy Bailey and others were doing to see that large ensemble music has been alive and well in Australia for decades. The appeal, however, comes from the points I’ve already made. Those that love orchestration, harmony and composition but don’t want to lose the originality and creative of improvisation, suddenly have this ultimate ensemble that ticks all those boxes, who wouldn’t want to lead one?

AJN: Which instrument do you think has not been featured enough in big bands?

JM: I could obviously pick something peculiar, such as bassoon or fife, but I think a more interesting and accurate answer is the piano. A core and vital member to all big bands and jazz orchestras, piano is the instrument I see the least with features. Sure, they take solos and play some fantastic passages, but how often do you hear of a feature piece for piano? Features are almost all for horns, perhaps it’s time we changed that?

AJN: How big is too big?

JM: When the compositional elements begin to get sacrificed or compromised, then it’s too big.

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

JM: Give Peace A Chance by John Lennon.

*The Melbourne Big Band Festival will take place on Saturday 11 and Sunday 12 February at the Cross Street Music Hall in Brunswick. Get tickets here

About Nikos Fotakis

I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king. Also a father, a husband, a writer, an editor, a coffee addict, a type 1 diabetic and an expat. Born and raised in Athens. Based in Melbourne. Jazz is my country.

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