James Macaulay: ‘The charm of the trombone is in its mystery’

There are Christmas songs and then there are Christmas songs, and they don’t get much better than James Macaulay‘s contemplative opus ‘Christmas Day Love Song’, a tune that looks right through your soul, while you seek for a glimpse of truth, navigating through the obsessive compulsive roller coaster of pre-programmed emotions that calls itself ‘holiday season’.

James Macaulay, of course, is one of the reluctant stars of the Melbourne Jazz community, a versatile trombonist who can’t help shining bright everytime he’s onstage. Equally at home when he plays trad jazz and when he delves into modern forms of improvisation, he approaches each style with candid curiosity, a punk sensitivity, an open mind, a dry sense of humour and the understated confidence of a zen master.

It is this set of qualities that made him the recipient of the National Jazz Award at the 2017 Wangaratta Festival, a turn of events that brought him into the limelight.

James Macaulay | Photo: Satoru Tada

What was the first thing that came to your mind when you won the National Jazz Award?

I was stunned, and then I realised that there might be an element of public speaking involved. I’m very grateful to all the people backstage who helped me keep a lid on things!

What are you going to do with the money?

The money is going to help me release a couple of projects I’ve recorded with some friends in Tokyo, and I rather hope I can put some money into savings too.

What does this award mean to you?

The award is a great honour; all the other finalists were exceptional, and played such diverse and unique Aussie music. I received so much support from friends and mentors over the weekend, which was very humbling and greatly appreciated.

Are you competitive?

If anything, I’m somewhat more competitive at physical sports – because they are largely beyond me, than other things. Marty Holoubek and I used to compete with each other to see who could hand out more Lagerphones‘ flyers on our first trip to Japan, and I was pretty competitive (though I could hardly compete). The things I have taken a bit of time to learn, like chess and more recently shogi, are interesting to me without a particularly great sense of competitiveness; I’m more concerned about playing well, or executing ideas which I’ve learned, rather than winning at any cost. Music is less competitive still, as it is an undertaking that one tackles alone, at least most of the time, in a practice room. It is a singularly rare and strange thing for musicians to compete against each other at something as broad and mysterious as music!

What is your idea of excellence?

My idea of excellence is something which takes incredible patience and great care. A master craftsman doesn’t get bored of their craft, but rather finds more depth in it over time. I can’t remember where it is from, but I think it’s a Nietzschean aphorism – ‘seriousness is a child at play’, which I think is important too.

If you were to give someone an award, what kind of award would that be? Who would get it?

I’d give Jeremy Jankie a special device that opens a trap door underneath the bar stools of silly musicians.

Who are your heroes?

Allan Browne, the Hoodangers, the Red Onions, J.C. Higginbotham, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Eric Dolphy, Josh Roseman, Ray Anderson, Lester Bowie, Marcel Duchamp, Mikhail Tal, my many teachers and my friends.

How did you decide to take up on the trombone?

I wanted to play the trumpet when I was 12, but I believe I was talked into trying the trombone by my uncle, whose argument was that everyone else played the trumpet (if memory serves). The trombone was quite a nuisance from a technical perspective as I started getting into jazz and bebop as a teenager, and it wasn’t until much later that I really fell in love with it. What a glorious instrument that can inspire the voices of Ben Gillespie, Adrian Sherriff, James Greening or Jordan Murray! For me the charm of the trombone is in its mystery, it forces musicians to develop such unique voices, and it doesn’t give their musicianship a rest.

What are your plans for the near future?

I’m interested in starting a Masters next year, as well as creating more musical opportunities for me to travel to Japan (while I continue to struggle with the language, the shakuhachi and shogi). I haven’t played under my own name in a while, so I’d like to do that again, but I would’t mind winding up in a funk band or something either, just to mix things up.

When should we expect the follow up to Three minute blitz?

Last year I recorded my dream project in Tokyo which features Aaron Choulai, Marty Holoubek, Joe Talia, Ben Harrison, Scott McConnachie, Akihiro Yoshimoto, and Miyama McQueen-Tokita. We also did a song with the amazing singer Lisa Salvo with extra vocal help from Hannah Cameron, Ben Harrison and James Gilligan. The project is called the Happy Hoppy Orchestra and it is mixed already and sounding very exciting, I just need to get it released!

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

WMD by Drub is the best way to get a bit chargey during a middle of the afternoon slump.
I also really love the song ‘Sobakasu’ – the opening song of a great anime called Rurouni Kenshin – by a Japanese band called Judy and Mary.