Harry Mitchell: “Perth is a really unique environment for young people playing jazz”





Harry Mitchell is one of these luminary artists who can’t help making their presence felt. He’s been doing exactly that, since he started playing jazz piano (at 13), getting the chance to perform with the ‘who-is-who’ of Australian Jazz, not to mention icons such as Hank Marvin and a certain drummer called Charlie Watts. In the meantime, he has been evolving as a composer, creating music that bursts with energy and fervor. Which is why he got together a dream team of musicians (saxophonist Jamie Oehlers, drummer Daniel Susnjar, guitarist Jeremy Thompson and bassist Karl Florisson) and set out to record his debut album. Good call. 

AustralianJazz.net: How did you decide to record an album?

Harry Mitchell: I remember I was at a pub in Mt Lawley, talking to a great pianist from Perth, Chris Foster. We were talking about general music stuff, recording, writing etc. I was telling him about the feeling i’m sure a lot of musicians have, which is not feeling good enough about your own playing to have anything worth recording, or at least not feeling you’d be able to record something you wouldn’t cringe at. He told me to stop thinking like that, and go and record something regardless of how I felt about it – great advice. The next day I started an application to get funding and thankfully got a grant through the Department of Culture and the Arts.

AJN: How important was it to have the state government support for this?

HM: Government funding was vital for this project. When you don’t have funding you run the risk of losing steam. It’s good to be able to create something and then record it straight away without sitting on music and get bored of it while desperately trying to save up. Recording isn’t cheap and without government funding it’s just not sustainable. Having funding significantly reduces the stress involved with recording, you want everyone to feel comfortable and you don’t need the added pressure of knowing if will cost you a fair bit if something doesn’t go to plan.

AJN: How did you pick the musicians you wanted to play on your album?

HM: I’d already been working with all of the musicians on the album in different formats, occasionally playing my own stuff with them, though I don’t think we had a gig in that format until I decided to do an album. They are all very inspiring musicians in their own right and I wanted to surround myself with musicians that made me want to play. I would have been happy just to sit back listen to them play together in that setting. Apart from how easy I find it to make music with them, they all have strong personal voices and I wanted them to put their own mark on my tunes, which they did. At this point I tend to write songs that are more vehicles for improvisation rather longer compositions and that was a perfect chance for me to hear the musicians do their thing.       

AJN: How easy is it for a young person to enter the scene?

HM: I was really lucky to have a great high school education in music, I had three excellent piano teachers who all encouraged me to take opportunities when they arose. Perth is a really unique environment for young people playing jazz. The scene is a little smaller here than places like Melbourne and Sydney. The smaller size means you have a chance to play with really great players from a young age. I’m certainly aware that I’ve always been in a privileged position, having a good home life, going to a good school, not stressing about rent etc. So I can only say that for me it wasn’t too difficult. I also had a great experience at WAAPA with  teachers who always pushed me and were always keen to play.

AJN: What has been the greatest challenge you’ve had to face?

HM: Being in such an isolated city it can be hard to feel connected to the rest of the Australian music scene. Touring is also pretty difficult from WA.  

AJN: How did you get into jazz?

HM: There was a teacher at my high school who plays great piano, and is also a top person, and I wanted to play like him. Thankfully he took me on as a student. I remember asking him what I should listen to because I didn’t know of any jazz artists. He told me to check out Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, so I went to the shop and bought the essential Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis super hits. The Herbie cd was awesome because it had tracks from Takin’ off all the way through to The New Standard. I think I probably just listened to Watermelon Man on repeat for about six months, though.

AJN: Who are your heroes?

HM: Musically, my heroes tend to be drummers: Brian Blade, Ari Hoenig, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Cobb… I love hearing bands with a strong group sound like Brian Blade’s Fellowship band or Wayne Shorter’s Quartet. Lots of my musical heroes come from Perth and Australia too. Personally though my heroes are my friends and family, the people I hang out with.

AJN: Speaking of drummers, are you tired of being asked about your experience playing with Charlie Watts?

HM: No, as long as that’s not remembered as my only contribution to the Australian jazz scene.

AJN: How do you see your place in the Australian Jazz ecosystem?

HM: It’s hard to see that from the inside; I think I’m still figuring that one out.

AJN: What is your greatest aspiration?

HM: To make music that is honest to myself that people can still enjoy.

AJN: How would you describe your music to someone who hasn’t got the chance to listen to it?

HM: I’d optimistically describe it as melodic improvised music with borrowed elements from most styles of jazz, except smooth, I hope.

AJN: What is the most important thing you have discovered about yourself through music?

HM: Everyone has something worth saying – including myself.