One question for Gemma Turvey, pianist and creative director of the New Palm Court Orchestra

Gemma Turvey is an optimist. She must be. There is no other way that anyone could do what she has done, that is create her own chamber music ensemble, beautifully named The New Palm Court Orchestra, blending classical music and jazz, in various formations, settings and venues. That optimism has paid off. The orchestra is steadily becoming a Melbourne institution, and its leader – a YAMAHA-endorsed pianist of immense sensitivity – is setting new goals. Here is one question for her.

Q: Gemma Turvey, could you please narrate the story of your life?

A: I’ll tell you the story of how I decided I want to study classical piano.

I was studying jazz at the Queensland Conservatorium and I had already done three years of the high school version – I would go to the Con after school and do some jazz training, play with the big band and some bands, and learning jazz theory, so during my second year of Uni, I was close to dropping out, because I was having technical issues.At the time, Tony Gould visited, and I did a workshop with him, during which he said that if you listen to Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, or Bill Evans, they are all concert pianists on their own right. He was also suggesting to check out Bach more, and Chopin or Brahms, so that is what I did and I started to realise how much I want to find out more about classical piano.

I had not done any formal classical playing since I was 15 or 16 years old. So when I went to audition for the classical department, I played through this Shostakovich prelude that I had prepared and I was trying to explain to the head of the keyboard faculty how I wanted to switch from jazz to classical only to support my jazz playing. And I remember him looking over his glasses at me and saying: “You have to practice very hard!”I promised that I would and that’s what I did. I practiced six to seven hours a day for the rest of the course.It didn’t take too much of a shift in mindset, really. Classical music is so easy to practice, because it is all there for you. You just do these exercises and then practice in a slower tempo and a faster tempo. It is so much easier than improvisation, because you can see progress, while in improvisation it’s much harder to put markers of progress; you have to create your own hurdles basically.

The reason I needed to do this was that, although I was confident in improvising, I wasn’t in executing the ideas I wanted to. I had these ideas in my head but I didn’t have the facility in my hand to execute them. It is interesting that I thought that going to school solves that and it did to some degree but I still have some ideas I don’t know how to execute. I think the bar keeps going further and further. I do this subconsciously. I think it’s the only way to progress.

I chose to tell you that story because it helps shine a light on how NPCO came to be. Because I started to inhabit two worlds, the jazz setting and the formal chamber music setting, and I was looking for a way to bring them together naturally.That’s how NPCO started. I was working in a piano trio setting but I was becoming more interested in adding different layers and colours. It was one of the things that you think about and sometimes you just get a kick, something happens in your life and you say: “I just got to do this.” For me the kick was a personal loss. It made me realise that I want to stop thinking about it, that I want to add a string quartet to that trio, and actually do it. I had a gig at Bennetts Lane and I told them that I would bring a seven piece band, so I added a string quartet to my trio. That went really well and it gave me the confidence that I can write for strings and if I keep writing I keep learning.

After that I knocked on the door of the Melbourne Recital Centre and they gave us a gig straight up. I was surprised by this reception because often, as artists, we see barriers where there aren’t any, we are just scared of rejection.

The NPCO has been expanding from then on; since 2013, we have a board of directors to take a load off me and take more strategic direction.I was looking at the business model of the jazz club scene and I thought there is no way I could survive off those gigs – and I am not saying that I became a musician to support myself through gigs, that’s a fallacy – but I was thinking that there has to be a better way. I could see groups like the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and the Australian String Quartet doing very well and there was no reason, just because the music was partly improvised, that we couldn’t aspire for a similar structure.The more important thing is the fact that I’ve got a loyal group of musicians that I can trust; that means the world to me.So now we’re on a path of stability and sustainability; we’ve got enough finance and human resources to plan a ahead and grow our audience. These are quite modest goals; I do have larger goals.

My biggest aim artistically is finding another word for improvisation. I don’t think it’s well understood outside the music world, people are scared by it.What I’m really trying to do with NPCO is give a platform for improvisation outside the jazz club, so that non-traditional jazz audiences would understand improvisation and what it means without being scared of it. There is not much discussion in the broader classical community about what improvisation can be and to how we can use this beautiful tool of music; if you say you’re a jazz musician to a classical musician they pigeonhole you, and they sometimes don’t show you much respect and I think that’s wrong, because the amount of skill and training and facility on the instrument is equal if not greater than that of a classical musician. Just because you make it up on the spot doesn’t mean you’re lazy – you’re being creative, you’re composing in the moment, you’re speaking the truth.”


Gemma Turvey and the New Palm Court Orchestra (featuring Craig Beard) will perform at the Jazz Lab on Sunday 27 May