Q&A with Willow Neilson – 2009 NJA Finalist

Willow Neilson, saxophone, currently living in Shanghai

When did you start playing saxophone and why? For example, was there a ‘moment’ when it came to you as a calling or vocation?

I started playing the saxophone when I was 14. I hassled my father to buy me one for many years until an instrument came up for hire from my school, Armidale High, to rescue me from my father from the constant pleading. Before saxophone I played guitar and harmonica. I listened to blues musicians from my parents record collection, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Muddy Waters and Taj Mahal were the family favorites. I still love those same records. The diatonic harmonica had its limitations and guitar was not as physically satisfying to play as a wind instrument so I guess saxophone was the logical progression. My father’s ex-girlfriend’s son had taken up saxophone, when we visited him he played me the sax solo to some dire straits song and I was really impressed, I was eight at the time. I loved the sound, was fascinated by its mechanics and its shiny brass and as I said before I kept pleading for a saxophone until the opportunity to play one was available; it was quite a few years after. As soon as I got it I went straight to the local sax teacher in Armidale, who luckily turned out to have built a mud brick house down the road from our property outside of the city centre in farming area. I wanted to make up for lost time and taught myself all the fingerings on the first night and could slowly play the chromatic scale. I derived such great enjoyment from this instrument, like a fascinating puzzle was unravelling day by day. Sometimes I wish I could relive those moments of discovery, it was so enthralling that I would lose myself, practicing in the shed or in the paddock until I was called for dinner, the exercises still circling my mind as I chewed the food.

Which musicians (jazz or otherwise) have been your greatest influences? What about them stood or stands out for you?

Coltrane was a huge influence on me as a teenager. I liked the intense emotion in his playing, he was my Kurt Cobain, but transcendent. There was always a strong emotional edge to his playing that spoke to my teen angst at the time. As the years went on I was less into his playing, it being such an easy style to sound derivative of, and more into investigating the musical and esoteric things he cited as influences, such as field recordings of ethnic music. Coltrane spoke of “a pentatonic sonority” in the music of the world, suggesting that the world is connected by the pentatonic scale. Living in China I would have to agree, there have been times when I have been travelling and thought I was hearing the blues in the distance only to find it is two old Naxi minority ladies trading lines. I have heard a tibetan singer perform with an african drum group and at first thought she was singing african melodies until I saw she was Tibetan. It seems that the blues scale is truly the world’s international scale, having found it in so many recordings from many diverse regions of the world. Simon Barker played me a recording of the double reed instrument used for temple ceremonies in Korea and I could swear it sounded alot like Coltrane. Through exploring what Coltrane explored I feel I have gained insight into how he developed his sound. Now in an age where I can be exposed to an even broader palate of sounds than were available to Coltrane at the time, there is so much opportunity to explore other sounds and approaches that I would like to incorporate into my playing. My latest interest is the music that is played for thai boxing matches, the double reed instrument that is played sounds alot like multiphonics on the saxophone.

When composing or arranging, where do you get your inspiration? For example, do you ever find that other art forms (painting, writing etc.) feed into your own creative process?

As Samurai Miyamoto Musashi said “you must know the one thing deeply enough to know the ten thousand things”, meaning that the deeper one gets into their art form the more they can become attuned to the subtleties and intricacies of other art forms. The world is so rich with beauty that is often painfully touching, the celebration of humanity in the many spheres of investigation is so far reaching that one can be filled with such reverence so as to feel so terribly small and insignificant. My hope that is if so many things in this world can touch the core of my being, then I hope I can flick some sort of switch inside even just a few of my listeners. Literature, films and lately martial arts are my main areas of inspiration. My kung fu teacher here in China talks of actors, artists and fighters, about whether he can see the intensity of their spirit shine through. Jamming or sparring with someone is for me a much more powerful way of feeling someone’s spirit than the inefficiency of mere conversation.

What’s your favourite place to play or practice?

I love practicing outside in valleys. The sound does not immediately bounce back as in a room but echoes in the distance. In Armidale I played outside or in the shed at all times because the saxophone was too loud compared to the TV inside the house. My favorite place to practice of all time was in Wilson’s Creek near Mullumbimby, accompanied by the Kookaburra’s afternoon calls, it was like a majestic ampitheatre but I had to make sure I sprayed on alot of mozzie spray.

In terms of places to play, enjoyment is based on an scale of performance enjoyment vs suitable remuneration. One place I sincerely miss playing at is the Side On Cafe and the Bald Face Stag in Sydney.

What does Wangaratta Jazz represent for you?

I think jazz music is a true embodiment of community. It is not a big business that attracts investors, it is a special treasure that only gives up its riches to those open enough to receive it. The people such as the person who runs the web site this is published on, Adrian Jackson and other jazz event organizers and of course the musicians themselves, do this not for any extrinsic gains but only to perpetuate some intrinsic value that they personally derive from the experience of this art form itself. Wangaratta is a great weekend of sharing, it is like the Australian thanksgiving of jazz where the musicians from around Australia and the rest of the world can gather and appreciate each other and be appreciated by one another and then get drunk together. The beauty of open art forms such as jazz is they are so inclusive of everybody, the audience, different people and cultures, different generations etc.

What are you listening to now?

Shuffle on my ipod, round and round she goes, where she lands nobody knows. I am considering forming a “church of shuffle” (patent pending, piss off apple, it’s my idea). There will be ten commandments, such as, thou shalt not press skip but endure whatever the gods of random play deem you must experience. The church of shuffle is open to commandment suggestions, there have been many suggestions, I propose there be an internet forum to decide the gospel. The last divine presentation from the gods of shuffle was from Barney Mcall’s ‘mother of secrets’ album; it was amidst a particularly congruent series of selections that included lionel loueke, danilo perez, guillermo klein and hermeto pascoal. Unfortunately it was followed by ‘Funky Town’, which goes to show the gods have a sense of humor too.

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These annual Q&As with National Jazz Awards finalists are coordinated by Miriam Zolin.