Andrea Keller: ‘I understood the responsibility of sharing, nurturing and leading by example’

It’s been two years since our last interview with Andrea Keller, and a lot has happened in the meantime; at the time, she had just dismantled her long-standing, acclaimed Quartet and embarked on a new venture, a rotation of trios that she calls Transients, currently featured every Thursday at her Uptown Jazz Cafe residency. Another residency at the Jazz Lab has her interacting with some of Melbourne’s best jazz and improvised music artists, showcasing their work and effectively stepping up to take another role within the jazz community, putting her leadership qualities to work. It was in this artistic incubator that her latest project, ‘Five Below’, emerged from. With a live album just out, a studio album on the way, and many other balls in the air, Andrea Keller sheds light to all these aspects of her work. Oh, and she has some very cool hoodies out for you, too.

Andrea Keller’s Five Below

What is the ‘Five Below’ backstory?

I created Five Below as a result of my ongoing Monday night residency at the Jazzlab. The project debuted on July 31, 2017, and we have been playing the last Monday of every month there since. My idea was to get the rhythm section from another ensemble I started as part of the Jazzlab residency, The Composers Circle, and create a new band from that. That involved Stephen Magnusson, Sam Anning, James McLean and myself. But as the group was formulating in my mind and I became clearer about the sound I wanted to achieve, I couldn’t shake off the idea to include Mick Meagher on electric bass. Mick (aside from being my husband) is part of a Transients trio I run and has been developing such an incredibly rich and interesting concept and approach towards sound that I couldn’t separate it from my imagined sound of this new band. The idea behind the music was to grab old material I’d written, particularly pieces which I felt never truly found their place, tear them apart, retaining only the finest remnants, and then re-imagine and improvise freely around them with this line up. The sets move in a continuous and fluid way through notated passages and improvised ones.

I love this band – the sound we make and the way we work the music constantly awes and inspires me; it has totally achieved what I imagined. But of course the more we play, the more I imagine…

What is it about the particular setting that you find appealing?

I didn’t set out to have a band with two basses, it just eventuated as I described earlier. It was funny that it didn’t occur to me until a while in, that I’d run the AKQ for 13 years as a bass-less ensemble and now my next major ongoing adventure as a bandleader involves an ensemble with two bass players! There’s so much flexibility in this band because of the way each of the members play, their abilities and the places they like to inhabit musically. The palette of how to write and orchestrate for the two basses is also incredibly broad. It ranges from being able to do the same thing, all the way to the total opposite end of the spectrum. The plan for the music has been entirely tailored to this group of people, but there’s nothing rigid about it, we’ve had quite a few gigs where a player couldnt make it, and in all these instances I’ve used saxophonists Julien Wilson and Scott McConnachie as substitutes. The result was so exciting that I’m planning a mega piece for the seven of us in 2019.

Why ‘Five Below’?

The title Five Below relates to the fact that the band is made up of five rhythm section players, who usually play underneath, or support, horn players and vocalists. It also makes reference to the fact that for several years now I have been struggling enormously with feeling cold all the time (= minus 5 degrees)!

Your first output with Five Below is a live album. Why?

I really love live albums. I love listening to them as well as recording in that way. This is largely improvised music, and so much is affected by the conditions of the moment – recording live, you have no choice but to give in to that and be accepting of all that follows; it’s a humbling experience and a lesson I feel I need to keep reminding myself of. The studio definitely has its place and I highly value that too, but there’s something about a band that mainly plays live gigs in the same venue – the band sound is such a result of the space that you almost can’t separate the two. I felt like that about Keller/Murphy/Browne. I’m so glad that our final album was a live one in the room we’d played for over a decade – it captures exactly how we sounded.

How will the studio album be different?

The Five Below studio album is planned for 2019. It will comprise different repertoire to the live album and will include new music specifically written for the band augmented by Julien Wilson and Scott McConnachie in some instances.

Mick Meagher, Stephen Magnusson and Julien Wilson sporting the ‘Five Below’ hoodies.

Why did you make merchandise for Five Below?

I made hoodies and stickers for Five Below just to have a bit of fun. The scope of this particular project is extremely broad in my mind and seems to invite an image and a concept that goes beyond the music alone. I’ve not felt this with any of my other projects. It’s a little different for a jazz group to provide merchandise but I like to think of Five Below as a band, rather than a jazz ensemble.

Is marketing know-how an important skill that someone in music should have?

I think marketing is an important skill, but it’s one I wish I was better at. The response to the hoodies has been really positive though. I think it is worth making an effort and bringing to fruition the ideas that I think are good ones.

‘Five Below’ is part of your Jazz Lab curatorship program; how would you describe this venture?

The Jazzlab curatorship program has been incredible for me. Putting together the ‘Composers Circle’ (a sextet of stellar performer/composers) and ‘Five Below’ have been certain highlights. As have the ‘solo/duo/trio nights’ and the ‘Masters & Apprentices’ program. During solo/duo/trio nights, I’ve had the opportunity to play with new combinations of musicians, and also to invite and hear musicians play in contexts they’ve never appeared in before. For example, Tamara Murphy played her first ever solo bass set as part of the night, and the Sam Anning/Kristin Berardi duo was born. The Masters & Apprentices program is all about bringing together established and emerging musicians in the one ensemble, and this has been incredibly rewarding and successful on many levels.

I felt so fortunate when Michael Tortoni approached me to take over the Monday nights, but I also felt a huge responsibility to share the opportunity so that many people in the scene could benefit. The mentoring that I received from Allan Browne was invaluable to me, now it’s my turn to give opportunities to those that are coming up.

You’re also continuing to explore the Transients project on a weekly basis and it seems that it has been constantly evolving; how many different bands does it include at the moment?

I’ve stopped counting the bands, it’s growing and evolving at too rapid a rate! What began as a set group of trios that I planned to rotate and develop, is now a collection of people that all know many of the same tunes (either originals of mine, or my favourites – predominantly from the Australian jazz repertoire). Some trio line-ups are made up of established players, and others involve students or recent alumni. I’ve realised how passionate I am about playing original Australian music composed by my colleagues and our predecessors, and how important I feel it is to know it, support it, present it and share it. Many of the trio combinations are different in terms of instrumental groupings, so that keeps things constantly fresh and interesting in terms of how I approach the music as a player. I love looking in my calendar to see who I’ll be playing with that week, there’s always a feeling of “oooh thatll be fun!”

With both these ongoing projects, you’re not only showcasing your work as a creator, but also as an active member of the jazz/ improvisational/ contemporary music community. How do you see your role in this ecosystem?

Like any creative musician, I just want to play and make music as much as I possibly can. I’m trying to get better and better at it, and I know the only way to do this is by doing it at every chance. Along the way, I’ve been really fortunate. People who carry weight in the scene have supported me and given me opportunities, this has opened even more doors for me. Musicians such as Mike Nock, Allan Browne, Sandy Evans, Brian Brown, Barry Duggan were all significant mentors for me; all of them invited me to compose or play with them while I was trying to establish myself as a musician. Through their actions I understood the responsibility of sharing, nurturing and leading by example. Now that I am established and in mid-career, with a position as Lecturer in Jazz & Improvisation at the Faculty of Fine Arts & Music (University of Melbourne), and ongoing residencies at two of Melbourne’s dedicated jazz venues, I feel a tremendous responsibility to share that wealth and give to the scene. My life has brought me to this point and it just seems logical to be doing what I’m doing.

Apart from your club residencies, you’re also one of the featured artists at the NGV Friday Nights series. What are you going to present there?

I presented Five Below and I am presenting two Transients trios – the first with Julien Wilson and Sam Anning, and the second with Christopher Hale and James McLean. Because of the nature of the space (the Great Hall is enormously reverberant), and the occasion (Friday night in the city) I’m avoiding playing our more delicate repertoire, the audience and occasion call for a more robust approach! Although it’s not a dedicated listening venue, it’s good to find yourself in broader circles, and be part of the larger fabric of Melbourne’s artistic landscape.

It’s only been a couple of months since you won a Bell Award for Still Night. What do awards mean to you?

Awards are always welcome! They’re confirmation that someone out there thinks you’re doing something right, which is welcome feedback, particularly now that many of the previous feedback systems such as reviews, newspapers, and radio play are shrinking rapidly into almost non-existence. Industry affirmations such as the Bell Awards do mean festival directors may be more likely to consider a project for programming and this will often trigger a chain reaction. In this way they are certainly really helpful at extending a project’s lifespan.

How do you relate to your body of work, once you’ve moved forward to other projects?

Im proud of all my past projects. I’ve never been even close to 100% satisfied that I achieved the peak of what was possible, but I know undoubtedly that with each project I unreservedly gave everything I could muster, and each one is a document to my thinking, feeling and abilities of that time. My goal as I move onward is to dream up scenarios that develop beyond the previous ones and push me into unfamiliar terrain. Ultimately, this is where I find fulfillment.

What keeps you going?

Inspiration is anywhere, everywhere, surprising, and often unpredictable. I think I’m forever on high alert, in anticipation of the next thing that will peak my curiosity. The acquisition of new knowledge and the desire for fulfillment keep me going.

Andrea Keller launches ‘Five Below Live’ on Monday 30 July at the Jazz Lab