Review: Jazz – The Australian Accent

Jazz: The Australian Accent cover

This review first appeared on the Jazz Australia website

Saturday, 01 November 2008

I do not envy John Shand the decisions he had to make when choosing musicians to talk to for subject matter in his new book Jazz: The Australian Accent, launched today by Paul Grabowsky at the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz. There are so many good ones. So many stories; so much to say.

The premise of the book is to ask and answer the question ‘is there such a thing as Australian jazz or is there just jazz made in Australia?’

Shand introduces us to a context in which the question is asked, in a brief and masterfully written introduction to Australian jazz in the world and in history. In fact the first 20 pages of this 200-plus page book put the rest of the chapters elegantly in context, with a chapter called ‘Splendid Isolation’ (much preferable to the clichéd and overused aphorism ‘Tyranny of Distance’ that Geoffrey Blainey’s history book gave us, a long time ago) and another on improvisation, with a little note about New Zealand participants in the Australian jazz scene. We have, after all, a tendency to claim Kiwis as our own, when we like them!

What follows these contextualising essays is a book full of just the sorts of stories many of us enjoy reading about creative people. It is evident that John Shand knows and loves the music about which he is writing. It is also clear that his appreciation for the music and what he calls its truth has enabled him to have many revealing and thoughtful conversations with musicians. His approach to the discussion of the contribution made by various musicians is to categorise: three main groups are covered, which he has named The Godfathers, The Firebrands, The Pioneers of Now. He also talks briefly about women in jazz and about ‘Future Stars’.

The book also features a large number of beautiful black and white photographs by Jane March, a Sydney-based photographer and jazz enthusiast who has been taking photos of musicians for many years.

Additionally (and rightly, since the book is about Australian jazz) a CD is included, with selected tracks composed and played by the musicians in the book, taken from recent Australian jazz CD releases.)

Musicians listed in the contents are: Bernie McGann, John Pochée, Mike Nock, Allan Browne, Phil Treloar, Mark Simmonds, Chris Abrahams, Tony Buck, Lloyd Swanton, Scott Tinkler, Julien Wilson, Stephen Magnusson, Stephen Grant, Matt McMahon, Simon Barker, Phil Slater and James Muller. Others-many others-appear in the text and in pictures, referenced by their peers and mentioned in passing.

As well as talking to and about the 17 musicians, he also covers the groups in which they play, often starting a chapter about an ensemble as a contextualising framework for following sub-chapters about individuals who play in the ensemble. This quietly emphasises the collaborative nature of jazz and improvised music, avoiding any tendency to re-invent musicians as celebrities in the process of telling their stories.

While Shand’s approach to talking about the musicians is biographical, he also allows each to have a voice. Each musician is quoted directly and extensively throughout the piece that has been written about them, and also sometimes in pieces about others.

The range of possible approaches to answering (and even asking!) such a question as ‘What is Australian Jazz?’ is enormous and no matter what a writer might choose to do with the brief, there will be criticisms. My criticisms were that I think a list of photos could usefully have been included as an appendix, and I was very surprised to see that Sandy Evans had not been interviewed. And others, of course. The choices made could lead to some misunderstanding that those not spoken to are not producing music that contributes to an ‘Australian’ way of creating jazz and improvised music.

However, to focus on the positives, Jazz: The Australian Accent is a beautifully written and presented snapshot of the contemporary jazz scene in Australia. With index, bibliography and source notes, it will also be useful as a reference for years to come.

Jazz: The Australian Accent by John Shand is available at all good bookshops and online at Recommended Retail Price is $34.95