John Scurry: “Music first, categories later”

John Scurry doesn’t like the term ‘trad jazz’ – and rightly so. He may have been associated with the sub-genre for more than five decades now, ever since he started playing banjo and guitar for the iconic Red Onions, but even then, the term would hardly do justice to the band’s anarchic, punk approach to the New-Orleans-style-infused jazz they played, basically becoming the inspiration for Melbourne’s abundance of early-jazz-with-a-twist bands. His own version of it, as showcased by his group, Reverse Swing, is much less ‘in-your-face’. Going for lighter arrangements, Reverse Swing have created a signature airy sound, a cool take on hot jazz and nowhere is this more evident than in his recently released album ‘Post Matinee’ – the first with him as a leader and composer. Featuring his own artwork on the cover – John Scurry, after all, has a parallel and equally fruitful life as a visual artist – the album (which is out on Julien Wilson‘s lionshare records) sounds like a welcome breeze on a hot day. And yes, it defies genres. Here’s what its creator had to say about it.

Reverse Swing | Photo: Hans Jahr

What is the story behind Post Matinee?

The album emerged out of a slow burning desire to put a collection of my songs together, to document them as it were. I had been fiddling about for a number of years with songwriting, making tunes. There was also the often repeated suggestions in my ear from members ofthe band to record these songs, as well as from the urging of my immediate older brother who had been at me for a while. It seemed an appropriate time to do it in late 2016. I assessed that I had enough tunes to play with without worrying too much about how they fell together. The important thing was to record some of them regardless of their seeming differing characters. It really was more about making something concrete to validate my activities as “composer” and more importantly to record the band as a working unit and credit them.

So the background to the album grows out of the formation of the band as a drumless quintet several years ago. After many years of playing together, I guess we arrived at a point where,as bandleader, it seemed a very good moment to put something down as the band and for me to “exhibit” my work as composer. There was no conscious conceptual notion behind the recording that binds the material together save that the melodies are mine and whatever links these disparate works I guess is governed by my sensibility. Some of the songs were written during the period when the date had been set for the recording. A few had been recorded before and others had been in my scrapbook for a while as musical ideas.

Reverse Swing | Photo: Hans Jahr

The album features your long-time band, Reverse Swing, as well as other guest musicians. How did you choose them?

Going back to when the band was formed as Reverse Swing, I put the band together to play a sort of ‘swing jazz’. I find categories difficult and ‘swing’ is used advisedly here… ‘Trad Jazz’ is another difficult one and a term I don’t like to use as a descriptor. While acknowledging where I have personally come from stylistically from the ’60s onward, my ambition was to honour small group swing that emanated out the US in the late 1930s and early 1940s and hopefully give it a contemporary energy and contribute something that we collectively had arrived at as musicians without trying to emulate a carbon copy sound that period. Hence we played tunes and songs from the mid twentieth century and quite often revisiting them with differing feels and time signatures. No radical stuff, but enough to reinvest and invigorate our musical curiosity. Over time, greedily and with the encouragement of the band, I introduced some of my compositions. As time went on these became a good portion of our performances.

When I played in the Red Onions, although songwriting was far from our enthusiasms, we did take joy in rediscovering great musical works by the likes of the Luis Russell Orchestra and Duke Ellington Orchestra and introducing these pieces in the lexicon of australian traditional jazz. With Reverse Swing, primarily at Paris Cat, it has been a privilege to introduce some new seemingly original works of mine to new audiences.

How did I choose the musicians? I have played with Eugene Ball, Michael McQuaid and Howard Cairns for many years, and Matt Boden, a breath of fresh air pianistically, came along a little later, when I decided to add the colour and weight of the piano to the ensemble. They were for me the obvious choice musically, as masters on their instruments and compelling ensemble players. I am always telling myself that I am very lucky to be doing the thing that I love in such esteemed company and great friends.

Reverse Swing | Photo: Hans Jahr

What does each bring to the overall sound?

Each musician, whether in the original quintet format or in the extended ensemble for the recording, is masterful on their instrument and has an equally innate understanding of the genres we are playing in and with. Nothing had been formulated as concept for the cd except to record these tunes and the invitation to all to partake in the recording evolved out of the opportunity to spend an extra day recording with the extended ensemble.

I should say at this point that the original idea was to record the existing quintet – Eugene, Michael, Howard, Matt and me. We had been working fairly regularly for several years and slowly building my compositions into the repertoire. I always wanted a horn and reed up front and a light rhythm section: piano, bass, guitar. Eugene’s lyricism and thoughtfulemotionality was the perfect foil for Michael’s ever expanding musicality and historic breadth of genres. We had developed a particular light sound that was also being influenced by the tunes I was presenting to the band. Howard and I had played together for decades, and we are dedicated to driving the band. Matt, as mentioned, was the pianist of choice. I met him in Leigh Barker’s band; he is a perfect foil providing wonderful melodic solos as a lot space for guitar and bass.

It occurred to me that having two days of recording, the second day could be used to expand the ensemble according to the each particular tune or song. I also wanted to play with how the band could sound within the parameters of genres. At some stage, I had played with all the extra musicians as had most members of the quintet.

I wanted Danny Fischer on drums for his insightful propulsion and encyclopaedic subtlety.

James Macaulay – a brilliant young trombonist on the Australian and international scene – is someone I have had the good luck to play with several times. He has an enthusiasm for the kind of music we are engaged with, and he has made a massive contribution through his unique musical voice. I might add that it is a real thrill to share the music in this cross-generational endeavour.

Master alto saxophonist, Phil Noy was recording the CD and agreeably took up the invitation to play on a few tracks. His brief but captivating solo on ‘How Calm the Sea is Tonight’ is a joy and bends the genre to a different place. Hopefully more of him later.

Shelley Scown I knew mainly from her recordings, but I had seen her perform years back and I remember being taken by the purity of her voice and her musicality. The song ‘How Calm the Sea is Tonight’ was written with her voice in mind, from memory, even though at that time I had not met her. Without getting into too much detail, the song grew out of a paragraph of written words from an article about a woman recounting her life in a whaling town in southern NSW.

I felt the melody had a sort of folk quality to it and it wasn’t a huge leap to hear the very special timbre of her voice singing it. I met Shelley at Al Browne’s Memorial concert in 2016 and mentioned to her that I had a song for her which had never been played and which I wanted to record with her. Thus having her on the recording, I found three other songs forher to sing to flesh out the album and give her more of a presence.

Reverse Swing | Photo: Hans Jahr

Reverse Swing has been around for quite some time and you have been active for much longer; what took you so long to do an album as a leader?

On reflection I think that I came rather late to bandleading, it coincided with forming Reverse Swing as a drumless acoustic ensemble and, about same time, taking over the managing of Virus after Chris Tanner left for Copenhagen. I had no desire to have a band under my name,that has only emerged with the CD, with permission from the other members. I think as Reverse Swing has established itself and with my compositions being a good part of the repertoire, it seemed the right time for putting out an album under my name. By now, I felt that I had enough material to pursue this recording project. I am also very conscious thattoo much credit can be given to the leader in this context. I firmly believe in the collective spirit and contribution of all in which music can be performed and I think that in this instance that is a good part of resultant album.In simple terms I wanted to document my songs, the time was right, and without hindering anyone’s creativity.

What is your aspiration for this album?

I think I have answered this – to document my music, to test it outside of performance, to celebrate my fellow musicians as equal partners in this endeavour And most importantly, to bring pleasure to the would-be listener.

Who is your ideal listener?

I think my ideal listener is probably someone who doesn’t know me and who responds to the music as music.

Reverse Swing | Photo: Hans Jahr

What does ‘trad jazz’ mean to you?

As I said earlier, ‘trad jazz’ is not a term I would use, except as it relates to my growing up in the 1960s during a jazz revival listening to early jazz from the 1920s and the ’30s. So in that sense, taken lightly, it resonates with a time growing up in Melbourne in the 1960s. It was common parlance then to refer to ‘traditional jazz’ as the kind of jazz played by the early pioneers, such as Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Jelly Roll Mortons Red Hot Peppers,plus many other bands of that era. In the Red Onions though, known as practitioners and youthful enthusiasts for playing that style of jazz, I think we were somewhat wary of the term trad as it seemed to describe at the time a sort of commercialised English sound we felt lacking in authenticity – the snobbish privilege of youth…

Traditional jazz was serious – “trad”, in our estimation, not so. Nonetheless, these were formative years and it is impossible to step outside of the language in which one is formed. As a teenager, traditional jazz and all that it encompassed co-existed with a huge variety of pop music and early rock n’roll by the likes of Little Richard, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, thanks to the agency of older siblings. So the “trad” thing I guess I will have to wear if my history determines it. I wouldn’t instinctively describe my music as traditional jazz, although I can understand it being perceived that way. How I would describe it is equally challenging. Music first, categories later.


How does your musical activity relate to your other artistic output?

I don’t have a conscious relationship between the two activities of music and painting. They have been mutually exclusive as pursuits. I assume that in creating forms and structures, tonalities etc, there is a governing principle at work via my individual sensibility. Each work,whether a music piece or picture, is crafted as a singular item made with the same attention to arrive at a sense of completion or resolution. I try not to think too deeply about meaning, and certainly not message. Whether it be a painting or a piece of music, it is enough that it has a presence, physical or otherwise. I think it was Francois Truffaut, the filmmaker, who said: “if you want to send a message, you should go to the post office.”

What is the greatest satisfaction you have got out of music?

As a general idea, the sheer pleasure of performing with my friends in front of an appreciative audience of listeners, and knowing that there is beauty and vitality in the collective experience for all. I should also add that I would be disingenuous if I didn’t say that producing this CD has provided a new sort of personal satisfaction and affirmation.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

If by this you mean which of my tunes, it is probably the one or the ones that are playing in my mind as possible melodies and forms, yet to be put to manuscript.

John Scurry and Reverse Swing launch Post Matinee on Friday 23 February at the Paris Cat.

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