Eugene Ball: ‘Let’s face it, musicians just want to make music!’

Does Eugene Ball really need an introduction? The versatile trumpet player has been one of the most prominent members of the Melbourne jazz scene, working alongside legends like Allan Browne and Andrea Keller, not to mention with his own group. Equally well-versed in contemporary and ‘traditional’ jazz idioms, you can see him performing with Nick Haywood and Petra Haden one night and with Margie Lou Dyer the other. Now he has assembled a new trio, with accordionist Anthony Schulz and bassist Ben Hanlon. They are making their debut at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Sunday – so yes, maybe this venture needs a proper introduction.

How did the Ball-Hanlon-Schulz project come to be?

Anthony and I work together in the Bachelor of Music at Melbourne Polytechnic. We had suggested to each other in passing that it would be nice to expand our working relationship into the realm of music-making. I’d been contemplating starting a small, not so jazz-focused ensemble that would be suited to resonant spaces. Around the same time, I repeatedly crossed paths with Ben Hanlon, and was struck, not only by his virtuosity and musicality, but also by his dedication to playing – his commitment to practicing and rehearsing (in a world of busy, spread-too-thin musicians) is inspiring. All of these thoughts coalesced, and the trio popped into existence.

What are your aims?

From a compositional perspective, Anthony and I consider the trio a vehicle for developing pieces that, while fundamentally about facilitating improvisation, sit more in the chamber music world than the jazz paradigm. Of course, neither of us are denying our ‘roots’ – there are pieces in the repertoire that are, in essence, jazz ballads, for instance – but the trio is a space for us to try out ideas that don’t necessarily fit in the context of the music made by some of the other ensembles with which we perform.

How did you develop your sound?

From its inception, the trio did not want operate in the ‘quick rehearsal before the gig; get the ‘heads’ up to scratch; don’t even talk about the improvisation’ mode, which is the unfortunate reality for so many projects these days. We rehearsed, regularly and intensely; sometimes a two-hour session would be spent on a single tune. We discussed our ideas at length, and tried them out through playing, which led to further discussion and further playing – a kind of iterative spiral of development, in which each cycle led us closer to the core of the piece in question. The way we rehearsed reminded me of similar sessions with the Andrea Keller Quartet in its early days.

How would you describe the dynamics of this trio?

Like most gathering of musicians, it is essentially fun and funny when the trio gets together. Sure, we knuckle down and get thigs done, but there is a pervading sense of joviality. I suspect that, for most musicians, actually getting to play is the reward for all of the other stuff that we have to do these days. Let’s face it, musicians just want to make music!

If you were to invite someone else to join you, who would that be?

I see the trio as a complete unit, but could just as easily see it augmented by any of the plethora of magnificent musicians in Melbourne or further afield. If such a collaboration did eventuate, my only concern would be to preserve the purely acoustic (unamplified) aspect of the ensemble. I also recently fantasised that it would be tremendous fun to bolster the ensemble with orchestrations for a string section. Could be a project for one of the festivals…?

How does this fit in with your other projects? You are also frequently playing with more ‘trad’ jazz groups; how dothese endeavours complement each other?

I am fortunate to engage with a very broad variety of musicI think most current musicians do, but you correctly point out that I have a particularly deep relationship with early jazz forms. I certainly don’t see this as in any way conflicting with my activity in the ‘contemporary’ arena; in fact, I don’t believe that I really make a deliberate distinction in the way that I approach traditional or contemporary jazz. Ideally, I listen to what is going on around me (musically speaking) and respond in an intuitive, reflexive manner. Since Al passed four years ago, and Andrea disbanded the quartet, I have been more active in the early jazz world, which has been a real treat for me – I’m continually finding more nuance in the music, and more twisted tangents to explore. But I have missed some aspects of making more contemporary improvised music, and this trio has certainly helped fill that hole.

What does jazz mean to you?

I like the notion that it is a verb. It’s also a spirit; an energy, which for me is about risk, and has a distinctly rambunctious quality. That’s why I think Australians have generally done it well; the larrikin spirit and all of that.

Who are your heroes?

Most of the people I make and have made music with. Departed friends I have made music with: Bill Howard, Gary Costello, Ben Johnston, Allan Browne (and more, I’m sure). Mentors like Miroslav Bukovsky and Scott Tinkler. Local inspiration has always proved more potent to me than that from afar/a different time.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

If you’d asked a little while ago, I would have answered ‘Plod, Plod, Stumble, Plod’ (one of my contributions to the trio’s repertoire).

But I’m feeling much better now!

Ball – Hanlon – Schulz perform at Melbourne Recital Centre on Saturday 22 June