Ellen Kirkwood: “I enjoy writing music that has a story to it”

Whenever Ellen Kirkwood and her [A]part suite is mentioned lately, or at least in the past couple of years, it is followed with the word ‘ambitious’. This is highly inaccurate. Because the project – an intricate and beautiful hour-long composition, which incorporates a wide array of elements and references coming from various jazz traditions and sub-genres, with remarkable ease – is out there. It has delivered on its ambitious promises when it was first presented live in front of an audience, and it is delivering in recorded form. [A]part is out from Earshift recrords. It is no longer an ambition. It is a fact. A composition that has all it takes to be a modern Australian classic – and which is presented live this weekend at the Wangaratta Jazz Festival. This is what the composer – and trumpet player extraordinaire – had to say about it.
What are you going to present at the Wangaratta festival?

Sirens Big Band is going to play my [A]part suite at Wangaratta. It features some of the best jazz musos, such as Andrea Keller, Sandy Evans and Gian Slater. People in the audience should expect the unexpected, as this isn’t typical big band music! It’s got a vast range of influences, including afro-cuban, contemporary classical, klezmer, chorale and electronica, and is full of emotion and drama.

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How has the journey of [A] part been so far?

I started writing [A]part in July 2016, when I began an Australia Council funded mentorship with Barney McAll. [A]part, amongst other things, was a way of putting into practice what I learnt during my eleven months of lessons with him. Before this, I had written a few long-form works, performed with narration, for smaller groups, and a bunch of originals and arrangements for Sirens Big Band and my student stage bands. I enjoy writing music that has a story to it; some sort of descriptive, narrative structure. I wanted [A]part to take shape around a few concepts, and I think a lot about the craziness of the internet and the many ways its affecting us, and the dire place the world is in with regards to climate change and the refugee crisis. [A]part, in a nutshell, is music that expresses how I feel about these issues.

How would you describe your music to someone not familiar with it?

Lately I’ve taken a liking to the term ‘Prog Jazz’. I like it because I like Prog Rock, and what I like about Prog Rock is that theres a story to it; it creatively moves between various interesting sections of music, and listening to it is like an adventure. My music is like that, but has more jazz in it (as well as lots of other styles too).

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How did you get into jazz?

I started getting into jazz when I was in early high school, but didn’t really give improvising a good try until I was nearly 18. My first experience playing jazz was in my high school junior stage band, and I remember thinking the rhythms were really weird and hard to read, but I got used to them pretty quickly. I soon moved up to the senior stage band and in a couple of years joined a fantastic combined public schools Jazz Orchestra outside of school. In year 12, I did the Young Women’s Jazz Workshops which were run by Sandy Evans and were in their second year. I learnt a huge amount from these ten weekly workshops and at the end, to my surprise, Sandy said she thought I’d be able to get into the Jazz Course at the Con, if I worked hard and auditioned at the end of the year. It turns out she was right!

What does jazz mean to you?

I say a lot of the time that I think jazz is too big. If I tell a non-musician I’ve just met that I play and compose jazz, what they think jazz is and what I play and write are probably completely different, and that really annoys me. There are some types of jazz I don’t like very much, and there are some that I love.

However, without learning jazz, I feel I’d be a much more limited musician. Because it has so much variety, knowing how to play jazz makes it easier to play a bunch of other different but related styles. Also, improvisation in its many forms is such an extremely valuable skill to have as it is the ability to compose on the spot; improvisation allows us speak with our own unique musical voice, have the ability to quickly translate ideas in our imaginations into sound, and musically interact with other musicians instantly.

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Why did you choose the trumpet?

The trumpet chose me! I actually played piano first, starting when I was five, and I stopped taking lessons when I was eleven, although I still play a bit now. I was alright at piano, but not great. My teacher said I had a good ear, but I think I just wasn’t co-ordinated enough to be a standout student. Meanwhile, towards the end of year 3, when I was nine, my uncle offered to loan me his trumpet so I could have a go (my extended family on both sides are quite musical). Because I could already read music and had good relative pitch, I picked it up quickly. The other good thing about trumpet is that it was an instrument I could play in my school band. At this point, I still lived in a country town, but fortunately my school had a good band program, and there was also a community concert band that I joined, and I enjoyed playing with other people.

The trumpet is a difficult instrument, and can be pretty frustrating. You can’t get away with not doing regular, proper practice, and you have to practice lots of exercises all the time in order to maintain the physical ability to get around the instrument in a variety of ways, with ease. Sometimes I wonder how I would have done on a different instrument. I wouldn’t have kept it up if I didn’t love it though. The feeling I get when I’m playing music that I love the sound of is satisfying and nourishing.

I’ve always loved playing in groups; being immersed in sound and being able to add my sound to the mixture. There’s also something therapeutic about playing the trumpet I think. The breathing and sheer physicality of playing can be a great release of tension and anxiety. The immersion in the moments of improvising, or even just practicing at home and the focus of that, calms my mind and body and takes me outside of the chaos of life for a little while.

As a woman in Jazz, what is you take on the scene, in light of the #metoo movement? Have you faced any gender – specific challenges?

This is a really interesting question, and I think about the reasons behind the gender imbalance in jazz a lot. I feel like, personally, I haven’t had as many challenges being a jazz musician as many other women I know. I am also aware that sometimes it’s hard to tell; for instance, it’s impossible to know whether or not I’d have been booked for more gigs if I was a man. It was, however, a bit of a struggle at times, when I was at the Con, being the only woman in my year of the Jazz course and one of three in the entire course of 60-ish when I was in first year, or at other times when I was the only woman in a large group of men. Sometimes I felt uncomfortable due to some of the topics of conversation going on around me, for instance. However, having said that, I also think in many ways I am lucky to be doing what I do at this particular time in Sydney, as I have been fortunate enough to have benefited from several programs whose purpose is to address this imbalance through educating young women in jazz and exposing female talent. I have certainly been booked to play many gigs because bandleaders or organisers wanted more female musicians. Whilst sometimes I might think to myself they only booked me because I’m a woman, I know that’s really not the only reason, as often I’ve been recommended by someone, or someone heard me at another gig. Also, there are wider benefits; a young woman in the audience might feel inspired seeing a woman on stage, or an audience member might have a lightbulb moment and start questioning why they rarely ever see female instrumentalists in jazz bands, and my skills and experience as a player improve too. People are waking up to problems relating to sexism in many parts of our society and it’s great that it’s getting out in the open, and things are being done, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do.

Ellen Kirkwood and the Sirens Big Band present [A] part at the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz on Saturday 3 November and at Foundry 616 on Tuesday 13 November, as part of the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival.