Q&A with Eamon McNelis – 2010 NJA Finalist

Eamon McNelis | Photo by Laki Sideris www.melbournejazzphotos.com

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

Growing up in Collingwood, emulating Michael Jordan and playing Mortal Kombat were the main pastimes of my schoolmates.  I couldn’t shoot a basket, I couldn’t perform the key combination for even a single ‘fatality’, and my parents were too smart to waste money on either expensive sneakers or a video console.

When I was introduced to the trumpet I was eight years old, I wasn’t so bad at it, and my teacher John Montesante gave me a whole heap of encouragement; he used to call me “Miles”, which was certainly the most complimentary nickname I ever had at school. He was the first person to introduce me to the music of Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong.

My father took me to see a few gigs when I was at primary school. We went to see Wilbur Wild in 1991 (Mike Jordan was playing drums), The Wynton Marsalis Septet in 1992, and in 1993 I saw Scott Tinkler play with Phil Rex, Scott Lambie and Paul Grabowsky at the Royal Derby in Fitzroy. The gig had an incredible impact on me, I remember marvelling at how fastScott’s fingers moved.

It must have been around this time that I decided I wanted to play music, for a living, for the rest of my life.  One of my music teachers, Chris Doquile, suggested that I might be interested in auditioning for the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School (VCASS). The idea of doing nothing but playing music all day seemed like heaven to me, and I remember being a little disappointed that I’d have to do other subjects as well.

At the P.E classes at VCASS most of the musicians shot baskets just as badly as I did; I began to fit in a little better.

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

I learnt a lot listening to Eugene Ball. Euge is an exceptional player, whose subtlety and fire made him an irresistible model to me as a young player. In 2007 Eugene was unavailable to tour Europe with one of his bands “The Hoodangers”, who have long been one of my favourite groups. I was lucky enough to fill in for him on that trip, and it remains one of the greatest honours of my life.

When composing or arranging, where do you get your inspiration?

I’m writing a lot of lyrics at the moment, and dealing with the English language in a musical capacity for the first time is very challenging.

Often I’ll hit on an idea, which is more of a feeling for an idea, and then spend a lot of time reading and researching until I’m able to recover concretely and in words, this feeling for an idea. A four-minute song will often only manifest itself to me after I’ve written 20 pages of notes attempting to tie together the often disparate concepts between which this feeling/idea lies. These notes often include historical research, references to Biblical and Ancient Greek stories, and quotes from philosophers and writers; Hemmingway, Nietzsche, Adorno and Foucalt often find their way in.  Most of this then gets scrapped in a vain attempt to appear unpretentious and laconic.

Musically, I do much the same, but instead of an idea in my head, I’ll have a sound. Then I research until I find out exactly what that sound is, and how to recreate it. In the past few months I’ve found sounds I’m looking for at a Paul Williamson gig, in Bernstein’s West Side Storey, in a Confederate Drum and Fife Tune, and in an Irish Reel. Often these inspirations are sufficiently obscured by the composition process that they are no longer recognisable, although just as often I choose to leave them as they are if they contribute a reference to the text.

What’s your favourite place to play or practise?

Asking my favourite place to practice is like asking me which shin I prefer to be kicked in; I don’t enjoy practicing. I figure if you’re enjoying practicing and you’re not frustrated, then you’re practicing something you already know. Practice is painful and hard work. I can’t stand that “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” rubbish. If you do what you love, it means your work won’t be degrading and soul destroying, but it doesn’t mean it won’t be work and that it won’t be hard. It is worth it though. Practice and hard work create magical musical moments; being involved in which, is the greatest pleasure I know in this world.

I don’t have a favourite place to play live either I’m sorry; every venue I’ve played at has had it’s good and bad points.  Playing with good musicians, playing good music, to a crowd that understands what you’re doing; these are the things that make a place great. Also, having someone good looking at a gig helps.

What does Wangaratta Jazz represent for you?

I’ve always been terrible at seeing shows at festivals, I don’t know why but it always seems that between sleeping, feeding myself and doing my own gigs I’ve never got enough time to actually see any music.

I have no idea why this is.

So for me, Wangarratta Jazz is about seeing old friends. It’s like Christmas, except that you don’t hang spend it with your extended genetic family; you spend it with your extended jazz family.

What are you listening to now?

What is somebody getting ready to compete at a jazz competition listening to? I’m listening to jazz, lots of it. Right at this moment I’m listening to a live version of Woody Shaw playing ‘Diane’ from the album Master of Art. The trombonist Steve Turre is taking a solo, and it’s awful. It must be very hard standing next to Woody Shaw.

Return to the main Q&A page… These annual Q&As with National Jazz Awards finalists are coordinated by Miriam Zolin.