“Not that I would compare myself with him for a moment, but Duke Ellington tried to respond to individuals in his group and composed for those individuals. Way Out West is not that different, except that the individuals in my group play unusual instruments”. There you have it; Peter Knight, trumpet player, composer, band leader and all-round unstoppable creative force of nature, sheds light on the inner workings of Way Out West, one of the finest and more consistent bands in Australia.
The unusual instruments in question are -first and foremost – Satsuki Odamura’s koto, Ray Pereira’s various percussive instruments, Howard Cairns’ button accordeon (when he’s not playing the bass, that is), Lucas Michailidis’ bottleneck guitar and James McLean’s drums. Okay, not all of them are unusual, but they all add layer upon layer of different sonic textures, creating a unique musical outcome that is effectively, a tangible evidence of multiculturalism in action. A sound that could have been created nowhere else but in Australia, nowhere else but in Melbourne, nowher else but in the neighbourhoods around Footscray.
Listen to the infectious groove of ‘Latest and Breaking’, featuring the sturdy, bluesy tenor sax of master Paul Williamson, brilliantly interweaved with the various textures of the group and you can understand what living in Melbourne today is like, there’s no better testament to that.
“I live in Melbourne’s inner west and the Way Out West music is a response to that neighbourhood”, says Peter Knight. “We live very close to one another, in and around Footscray, among lots of people from all different cultures. We started off wanting to just have a band, to get together and have a play. We thought it was really cool to have all these different sounds coming together. So, the sound of Way Out West and the approach that we take has built up over years of working together with roughly the same people”. Was it the instruments that he was interested in, or the musicians? “A combination of both”, he says. “Finding people who have a spirit of openness in their approach to music, because a lot of people are attached to a tradition of an idiom or a way of doing things. So rather than try to recreate west african rhythms or recreate the elements of traditional music from Japan, I really did approach it as sound and rhythm and melody and tried to respond as a musician and composer in an instinctive way, with the idea that maybe out of that may come something new. There has been a lot of jamming and recording; I’d bring in really rough sketches of ideas and record the way people respond to them”.
Peter Knight | Photo: Traianos Pakioufakis
The result is a testament of jazz as a global language. Peter Knight agrees. “Bringing together influences keeps jazz alive”, he argues. “I think that the jazz tradition is actually to respond to the here and now. The idea of jazz like some kind of canonical, classical form, which is an argument by Wynton Marsalis and others, I think gets it all wrong. If you want to actually follow the tradition of jazz, you have to respond to your story and the place that you live in. It’s not so much about idiom and style, that’s the surface stuff. The deeper stuff is trying to think about the way jazz has always been questioning and curious and absorbing other influences. That’s how I see it. And this is one of the most exciting things about being an Australian musician, being surrounded by lots of different cultures. We have extraordinary examples of cross-culture collaborations that don’t sound like world music but like something new”, he says, stating as proof the work of Simon Barker and Scott Tinkler and Paul Grabowsky, whom he succeeded at the helm of the Australian Art Orchestra, continuing his vision to create “new music that takes in all these influences from Indigenous Australia and our Asian neighbours”. The Australian Art Orchestra has just launched a breathtaking album, ‘Water Pushes Sand’, supported by a series of great live performances. Both outfits are perfect examples of Australia’s multicultural energy becoming great art. But Peter Knight is more modest when talking about it. When asked about his aspiration regarding Way Out West, he simply says: “Sometimes it’s hard to think beyond just the pleasure of making more music”. And here is another glimpse into the inner workings of a great band.