A privilege to play : a portrait of David Ades

It was a mad, almost delirious night, with the music more intoxicating than any wine or beer. David Ades can do that. One note on his alto saxophone is enough to arrest attention, change one’s mood and galvanise a band. He doesn’t have to try to do any of these things: it is innate in his big, braying, tenor-like sound and his high-stakes approach to making music.

The night in question was an Ades Quartet gig Sydney’s 505 in July, but it could have been any of a long chain of performances across the 25 years, such has been his commitment.

Asked what it was like to play with John Coltrane, the great drummer Elvin Jones replied that you had to play like every day was your last. ‘That’s how I’ve always felt about playing,’ says Ades. ‘And it’s a real privilege to play. I feel joyful and grateful to be able to play, and always have done. I’ve never taken it for granted. For me gratitude is a really important thing. Not just for music: for life.’

Ades knows a little more than most about being grateful for life, having been diagnosed with lung-cancer earlier this year, and having previously nursed his partner Melissa as she died of breast cancer. ‘I learned a whole new level of intimacy and sharing,’ he says of that heart-breaking episode. ‘Getting to observe the preciousness of life through the eyes of someone who was losing theirs was a very profound experience.’

His own confronting situation has been eased by some very expensive treatment in Germany, which has, in turn, been supported by benefit concerts in Melbourne, Sydney and Bangalow.

Meanwhile Ades continues to play as only he can, performing material from his thrilling A Glorious Uncertainty CD, recorded in New York with Tony Malaby (tenor), Mark Helias (bass) and Gerald Cleaver (drums). This was the culmination of a rapport struck up at the Wangaratta Festival in 2000, and maintained on Ades’s annual trips to the Big Apple.

At this year’s Wangaratta he is playing with Julien Wilson, Jonathan Zwartz and Danny Fischer, the latest of a series of bands to perform the music this year. ‘I tried to write the music that it would require very little rehearsal, and not put any kind of restrictions around the players,’ Ades explains. ‘I’ve loved the fact that every gig we’ve done has been really different.’

A Glorious Uncertainty was his first album under his own name since 1991’s eclectic Bird On A Head. Five years in Bali, two albums with FATS (Scott Tinkler, Thierry Fosmale and Greg Sheehan), caring for Melissa and an album with Matt Keegan’s trio sketches in the intervening years.

Ades was born in England in 1961, his jazz-loving father bringing the family to Australia in 1969. At 11 he took up the drums, only for his interest to fade in favour of surfing – an ongoing passion. Then he began experimenting with the recorders and flutes played by his sister. ‘I watched her practice and learned where to put my fingers and how to blow,’ he recalls, ‘and then learned by ear, playing along with records.’

Gradually music reasserted itself in his life. He read a book about Charlie Parker and bought one of his records.

‘That was the first time I realised the depth of somebody interpreting their own life through their music; playing from their inner world,’ he says. ‘That completely floored me. I was never the same from that day on.’

He bought an alto just before his 18th birthday, and when he played it for the first time it was for untold hours just as he was devastated by his parents’ breaking up. ‘I didn’t know the names of the notes on the saxophone,’ he recalls. ‘I didn’t know anything. I was purely playing from instinct; from sound. Somewhere that day I made the decision that this was what I wanted to do. It was all-consuming. It was like it chose me. I walked out of there a saxophone player.’

He took lessons from Bob Bertles and practiced up to 10 hours a day for the next 18 months. He studied at the Sydney Conservatorium, dropped out after a year and moved to New York in 1981, aged 19, staying until 1983. There he frequented a Harlem club called the Blue Book. ‘That was a phenomenal experience for me,’ he says. ‘Not only was I encouraged to play every night, but I also got to hear people like Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Jack McDuff – heavyweights – come and sit in, as well as lots of lesser-known, but equally great, players.’

He also developed a cocaine habit ‘and all the arrogance that came with it’. He was set straight by a septuagenarian saxophonist, George Clark, who had befriended him, and gave him the most severe and important dressing-down of his life. ‘He also did the most beautiful thing,’ Ades continues, ‘which was offering to teach me, free of charge, once a week. He took me back to this incredibly simple way of learning how to play on tunes and chord changes. We played one tune, ‘All The Things You Are’, for six months, and it was among the most valuable lessons I’ve ever had.’

The troubles were not over, however. Back in Sydney, Ades turned to heroin, an addiction that was to beset him on and off for some time, although he has now had neither drug nor drink for nigh on 16 years.

One of his most significant associations began in 1987, when he sat in with Phil Treloar‘s band, a night he still remembers vividly. ‘I just felt like for the first time I had all this space to express myself,’ he says. The upshot was joining saxophonist Mark Simmonds and bassist Steve Elphick in the drummer/composer’s phenomenal Feeling To Thought band. These were players embodying the intensity and commitment to which he had always aspired.

Phil Treloar’s ‘Feeling to Thought’ – ‘Shades of Bhairav’
Phil Treloar – drums, composition, Mark Simmonds – tenor sax, Dave Ades – alto sax, Steve Elphick – bass | from the film Beyond El Rocco – Sydney, Australia – 1990

He remains only interested in musicians who ‘slam their heart down on the table, and go, “There I am!”‘ he says. ‘Phil was the first person who actually articulated that in a really clear, simple way, and who invited us into that space with him. That’s been my benchmark ever since. The music required humanity, trust and a great deal of empathy with each other. Basically it was safe to express yourself.’

Ades has had to accept that he not a gun-for-hire, do-anything type of musician. Even his unconventional alto sound has been questioned, memorably in a recording session in Asia where he was told he sounded ‘wrong’, and that they wanted someone to sound like Kenny G!

The truth is that his sound is an asset that places him in the highest echelon of Australian jazz. ‘One of the things with Bernie [McGann], who’s been a huge influence on me, is that he just lights the room up,’ he enthuses. ‘The air changes. Phil [Treloar] hits a cymbal, the air changes. [Mark] Simmonds plays a note, the air changes. It’s like the room gets charged up in some kind of way.’ Ades knows that secret, too.

Hear the David Ades Quartet at the Wangaratta Jazz Festival on Saturday 3 November 1:00 pm at WPAC

At Wangaratta, David will perform this music in the company of Julien Wilson (tenor saxophone), Jonathan Zwartz (bass) and Danny Fischer (drums)

Purchase A Glorious Uncertainty from Vitamin Records www.vitamin.net.au

Audio: Melissa, recorded at the MONA museum in Hobart 2012. David Ades and friends: Julien Wilson on tenor saxophone, David Ades alto saxophone , Ted Vining drums and Nick Haywood bass, launching A Glorious Uncertainty