Paul Grabowsky: ‘Bob Dylan is a prophet’

It is no surprise to see the name of Paul Grabowsky associated with an event called ‘Jazz Greats Weekend’. He is, after all, one of the truly greats in Australian jazz. What is surprising though, is that he’s putting on a tribute to Bob Dylan, alongsideKate Ceberano and Joe Camilleri. Here’s what he says about it. How did the Dylan project come to be?

Paul Grabowsky: I initiated the project. The Monash Academy of Performing Arts, of which I am executive Director, is holding a two-concert Jazz Greats weekend, and I saw an opportunity to do something I’ve had in my sights for a while. The quartet, featuring my Monash colleague Rob Burke on tenor, Jonathan Zion on bass and Luke Andresen on drums, toured Japan last year, and we have a great empathy. Given the material, I knew Joe Camilleri would be a no-brainer as vocalist, as he virtually channels Dylan, and as I have been working intensively with Kate Ceberano during the past few years, I have grown in my understanding of the range of her musical interests. She is a fine singer, as we all know, and a natural musician.

AJN: What does each of them bring into the project?

PG: Both Joe and Kate are jazz fans. Not many people will know that Joe is behind the Melbourne jazz label ‘Jazzhead‘, and is a walking encyclopaedia of many types of music, most of which are represented in his own extensive recorded output. Kate was very active in the jazz scene of the late 80s and early 90s, and is one of our finest jazz vocalists. Needless to say, she has made herself a national icon through her stellar pop career.

AJN: What period of Dylan did you most focus on?

PG: The songs come from all periods; some from the early acoustic albums of the early 60s, some from the electric 60s, some from the 70s, particularly from ‘New Morning’, and there are some more recent rootsy songs from more recent albums, ‘Together Through Life’, for example. The songs need to appeal to the singers in the first instance, and to lend themselves to the band’s aptitude for creating appropriate sonic environments.

AJN: Bob Dylan’s songbook is mostly viewed as poetry (hence his being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature), while the musical side of his work is often disregarded. What is your take on his music? What makes it good material for jazz treatment?

PG: There is of course a literary side to Dylan’s oeuvre, but at the end of the day, he regards himself as a songwriter primarily, coming clearly out of the great American folk traditions of Arlo Guthrie, Leadbelly, country music, early jazz, jug bands, folk balladry, so many confluences. The fact that I’m interested in his music should come as no surprise, as he is a truly great songwriter, and most jazz musicians love great songs. The only difference between Dylan and say Jerome Kern is the musical and lyrical structure of Dylans work, which tends to narrative and abstraction, often in strophic form. But there are plenty of examples of more lyrical songs as well. ‘Just Like a Woman’, ‘Lay, Lady Lay’, ‘Forever Young’, ‘Don’t Think Twice’, ‘It’s all over now, baby blue’…the list goes on and on.

AJN: How ‘jazz’ is this project?

PG: My stock answer to the question is usually “Define ‘Jazz'”. Music played by jazz musicians with a jazz attitude means for me the willingness and right to explore any musical situation with freedom, to improvise, and to reference the tradition from which this freedom arises. This can be applied to any situation, really.

AJN: How does this project fit into your other various projects?

PG: This is just another example of my curiosity, and my willingness to continue to experiment with the idea of jazz in any and all contexts. It is also an example of my deep love of great songs and lyrics, interpreted by serious vocalists.

AJN: What does Dylan mean to you?

PG: For me, a comparative latecomer to Dylan, he is a creative giant, almost a force of nature. He has outlived all attempts to mythologise him, remaining true to the troubadour spirit he has always represented. His is a life of concert stages and hotel rooms, ruminations, exhortations, and deeply expressed passions. He is a prophet.

AJN: It is almost impossible to disassociate certain aspects of Dylan’s songbook from the social environment they were created within, or the civil rights movement. What do these songs mean in today’s context?

PG: People can draw their own messages form the content. We aren’t consciously focusing on protest songs, but the fact that Dylan is the subject matter may itself suggest an attitude apposite to these troubled times.

AJN: If you could work with Dylan himself on this project, what would you have done differently? Which one of your own compositions would you incorporate?

PG: I would find it unnecessary to play my own music with the man. I would have him choose the material, and I would happily just play along.

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

PG: ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’; a series of deep questions, expertly parsed, and somehow deflected.

*Jazz Greats Weekend presents Kate Ceberano, Joe Camilleri and Paul Grabowsky on the Bob Dylan Songbook, on Sunday 26 March, 7.30 pm at Monash University’s Robert Blackwood Hall.