Creature feature – Tamara Murphy on the Young Elder

An interview with Tamara Murphy

Last night, the Melbourne International Jazz Festival launch event was treated to a performance by Murphy’s Law. What we heard was a sneak peek of a concert that’s high on my list of must-hears at the festival. (see bottom of interview for concert and broadcast details)

Tamara Murphy
Tamara Murphy

In 2011 Victorian bassist Tamara Murphy won the inaugural Young Elder of Jazz Commission in Melbourne. The award, worth $10,000, is commissioned by Melbourne’s 3PBS radio station and is designed to encourage excellence and innovation among young Australian jazz composers.

Murphy is using the prize money to create and present a new work, Big Creatures and Little Creatures: The Modular Suite. The suite will be broadcast on 3PBS and performed at Bennetts Lane on 2 June as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival.

We caught up with Tamara at a cafe in Brunswick Street, just before Christmas 2011, to find out how the project is going.

Miriam Zolin: Congratulations on winning the inaugural Young Elder Commission. Can you tell me about it?

Tamara Murphy:The award gives you funding to go towards writing a new work (that goes for about an hour) to be premiered at the 2012 Melbourne International Jazz Festival. The commission is governed by PBS radio and backed by some very generous philanthropists who are silent partners.

I’ve been wanting to so something different for a while – I’ve been playing with some different concepts with my ensemble in the last year, so this is a chance to really take that a bit further.

MZ: I liked the name of the piece you’re proposing – ‘Big Creatures and Little Creatures: The Modular Suite’. Of course it also made me think of Little Creatures beer

TM: [laughs] I like Little Creatures – so who knows.

I’ve been trying to work with the ensemble in different ways; different from a more traditional approach, and the name reflects that.

MZ: This is your ensemble Murphy’s Law?

TM: Yes, and we’ve been working with a project this year, called Modular. We’re trying to do things that are a lot more improvised. We’ve got material that we use, but we deconstruct it on stage.

MZ: Original material? standards?

TM: Original material. Other people in the ensemble have contributed but for this work, of course, I’ll be writing everything. Some of the Elders money is going towards paying the band to rehearse. Because so much of it is improvised, that means it has to be really rehearsed, to make sure that everyone in the band has memorised everything.

MZ: So how do you approach composition and improvisation?

TM: I guess I consider myself an ‘intuitive’ composer in that everything I’ve written so far seems to have been written in a slightly different way. I don’t have one method – one approach of sitting down and writing in a particular way. Some tunes just seem to write themselves while you are practising and they sort of fall out. With this composition, I know it might sound weird but I’ve actually just been thinking about it a lot so that I have a mental picture built up of what it is that I’m going for. And then I’m going away for a few weeks so I’ll be able to think about it. I’ll have January off from teaching work so I can really spend that time formulating ideas and putting them on paper.

The last time I approached writing like this was probably when I was doing my Masters (in Music Performance) and I was incorporating turntables and more modern influences like electronica into my writing.

I expect that I will be doing with this composition will be similar in a sense that I still want to be taking influences from modern music and popular culture, as well, in a very non-standard jazz format. We’ll have two drummers!

We’ve been experimenting with that – it’s actually quite a recent thing. I thought it would be fun to write for that configuration and then I applied and it all happened, so…

MZ: So the term ‘modular’ – what does that mean

TM: Well I guess it’s modular in that the parts can be rearranged. So the suite will include some big pieces and some little pieces. The big creatures – the movements – feature each member of the ensemble. The small creatures in between are the links that bring it together. But the order can be determined by anyone in the ensemble. So this encourages a more autonomous way of playing…

MZ: How will members of the ensemble determine the next module?

TM: I think there will be musical or visual cues. Because we’re all being featured in the pieces, and because we’ll all have memorised the music, when someone goes into it, we will know what’s going on. That’s part of the idea.

MZ: So you’re always listening and looking for cues…

TM: It’s going to be very intense, because if one of us misses something that could be really be bad.

MZ: That’s I guess one reason why the rehearsal is so important?

TM: Yes, and it’s weird to talk about it now when I’m only just really thinking about it. But I imagine these through-composed sections that are very complete and we’ll all have our set parts but then when we’re improvising I want it to be so that as a listener you can’t really tell what’s written and what isn’t. I think that would be a really great listening experience. A lot of the time, when people play free, it can be a bit… it doesn’t have that sense of composition about it, which I feel is essential.

MZ: I’ve often thought how different it is for the musician compared to the audience, particularly the audience who isn’t technically aware of what’s going on in the music. We can get lost sometimes, in the free playing. It can be hard when you’re tired.

TM: I’m the same. I’m exactly the same. And I always consider myself as having a really short attention span, so…

MZ: So you write with that in mind?

TM: In a way, yes. I think about ‘would I want to listen to this?’ , ‘would I be happy and engaged, listening while somebody was playing this?’

MZ: [laughs] Thank you! We appreciate that! You seem to have a wide listening range – and you play in a number of different styles. Is there a particular focus for you?

Well, it can be a bit disconcerting because there’s so much music available so you almost get a bit paralysed by choice. You don’t know where to look. Should I listen to something Ellington did nearly a hundred years ago, or should I listen to that thing that’s just been released?

MZ: Do you find yourself doing both?

TM: Yes, totally. I’ve been really enjoying… a lot of pop stuff I’m finding really interesting. There’s a great guy called Sufjan Stevens. He’s an American singer. He’s beautiful. It’s so good to hear something new that I haven’t heard before. And the way he uses technology is great. He uses some effects that I’d like to bring into the live ensemble.

MZ: So you’re not a jazz snob then.

TM: No, not at all and if people ask me what sort of music I like, then I would say ‘good music’ – there’s good music and bad music in every genre. And there’s stuff to be taken from every type of music. You don’t gain anything by putting on blinkers. You’re only going to lose. I think a lot of my favourite musicians are quite innovative and take on things around them…

MZ: Who springs to mind for you?

TM: One who keeps coming back to me is Bill Frisell. He is someone who has created his own sound but he’s very much come from the jazz sensibility but when you hear him play you can hear that he works in things that have influenced his whole life. The music that he’s connected to. He just did a John Lennon album which I’m hanging to hear because that’s really hard music to reimagine. I just find him inspiring in that way. And again, you feel like anyone could listen to him. He’s intuitive and such a beautiful musician.

MZ: You seem to be pulled in lots of different directions too, I heard you recently with Colectivo 29, playing tango, and that was great…

TM: Yes tango pieces are like little soap operas!

Murphy’s Law is Tamara Murphy – bass, Jordan Murray – trombone, Nashua Lee – guitar, Joe Talia, Daniel Farrugia – drums, percussion

Tamara Murphy on the web:

Hear some sounds at Tamara’s MySpace site:

Melbourne International Jazz Festival:

The Young Elders Jazz Composition award is one of a number of initiatives that PBS FM community radio station is in the process of introducing. John Carver, the station’s chairman, told us “the station has been around for over 30 years and for much of that time, we’ve been struggling to survive, financially. It’s just been very recently that we’ve realised we’re in a position to give something back to the community of musicians and others.”

The Young Elders Jazz Composition award originates from an idea that had its germ over five years ago. Current and past volunteers and broadcasters at the radio station and a panel of outside supporters have been involved to bring to life what probably started as casual throwaway line combined with a good idea that at the time had no funding.

Big Creatures & Little Creatures: The Modular Suitewill be premiered on 2 June at Bennetts Lane as part of the 2012 Melbourne International Jazz Festival .

The performance will also be broadcast on Monday 4th June on PBS 106.7FM (Melbourne) on Adam Rudegeair’s Black Wax