Zwartz and his band | limitless possibilities

by John Clare

Jonathan Zwartz and his band at the Jazzgroove Summer Festival 17-20 January 2013

Having just heard them at 505 I have no doubt whatsoever that bassist/composer Jonathan Zwartz’s band will be a highlight of the Jazzgroove Annual Festival in Sydney. Look, they’ll be a sensation. I heard pretty much the same band at Wangaratta in 2010, just after they had released the album The Sea, and it was the sleeper of the festival. Currently the line-up is trumpeter Phil Slater, tenor saxophonist Richard Maegraith, trombonist James Greening (sitting in at Wangaratta, but now a permanent member), guitarist Carl Dewhurst, percussionist Fabian Hevia and drummer Hamish Stuart.

Jonathan Zwartz | photo supplied
Jonathan Zwartz | photo supplied

Before discussing this exceptional band it would seem appropriate to spring some surprises regarding Zwartz himself. For a long time he has been one of the top-line bassists in Australian jazz. There is a certain intensity to his stance and expression as he addresses the instrument – balanced like a fighter, intimate as Humphrey Bogart dancing close – but his stern concentration is soon broken by wide reckless grins as he feels everything drop into the pocket. His apparent confidence, his balance, his dark, beautifully modulated tone, his elegant and accomplished playing – so distinctively shaped, meaningful and inventive in every situation – might lead us to believe that he had begun studying the double bass at a fairly early age. Not so.

Zwartz arrived on these alien shores from Wellington in 1981, playing the electric bass in a pop band that gave up the ghost in three months. Zwartz, who was 19, had a one way ticket. He lived hand to mouth until he began touring in the back of a closed truck with a ten piece soul band – lying and trying to sleep about a metre from the roof due to the piled equipment beneath him. They supported The Dynamic Hepnotics amongst others, earned very little bread and got even less sleep. When one of the Kiwis in the band went home with a severe case of RSI, he left his double bass behind. Zwartz began teaching himself the instrument, having felt an instinctive attraction to it. Soon, with incorrigible optimism, he decided to audition for the jazz course at the Conservatorium of New South Wales. ‘Five months before the audition [double bass virtuoso and now head of the jazz course] Craig Scott showed me a Monk blues and taught me Autumn Leaves.’

He got in. “They were probably short of bass players,” he declares. Sure. Soon pianist Bobby Gebert took Zwartz under his wing and recommended that his colleague Bernie McGann recruit him for the Bernie McGann Quartet, along with Gebert and drummer John Pochee. Zwartz was 23. Subsequently his long association with McGann led to the celebrated Bernie McGann 75th birthday concerts recently at Sydney’s Sound Lounge with Paul Grabowsky and drummer Tim Firth. Along the way Zwartz toured in Eastern Europe with McGann and Pochee. ‘It was a profound lesson in life and music from those guys,’ says Zwartz. ‘One night in Warsaw we went onto the stage exhausted, completely fucked, and as we began hitting it they actually stood up and applauded. They gave us a standing ovation while we were playing!’ Yet Zwartz still doubts his ability, looking up from what he sees as a lowly position to such players as Phil Stack, Brendan Clarke, Steve Elphick, Alex Boneham and – his greatest hero – Lloyd Swanton. While jazz opened ‘limitless possibilities’ Zwartz is still a great lover of black soul and R&B. He also feels that working with singers was crucial in ‘feeling the bass’s place in the music’. Over the years he has organised gigs in which some of his favourite musicians have played with such singers as Kate Ceberano, actor/singer Toni Collette, Vince Jones, Tina Harrod and (Jonathan’s wife) Jane Lindsay. The idea sprang from American saxophonist David Sanborn’s TV Show in which his band played with guests from many areas of music.

Perhaps the best-known of Zwartz’s ventures was at The Starfish Club next to the Bondi Pavillion, a joint venture with Jane Lindsay and long-time friend and collaborator Hamish Stuart. A residency at Clovelly Bowling Club, however, reached a prolonged hiatus following an armed hold up. ‘I had a gun held to my head,’ says Zwartz, ‘and we were all made to lie on the floor. One of the robbers was starting to lose it. He was completely frantic, yelling “where’s the fucking money?” Hamish Stuart said, “What is it you want?” He screamed, “The fucking money! Where’s the money?” “There’s no money,” said Hamish. “We’re jazz musicians.” This has passed into jazz history. Behind the mask you could actually see the gunman smile for a moment.’

The Clovelly job (the Starfish Club) is about to resume on the first Monday night of each month.

So what to expect from his exceptional band?

Sensationally exciting and beautiful solos from all members, over surging, driving, rocking and sometimes static choirs of ensemble sound, often sweet and folk-like. It can all shimmer and ripple like an ambient cloud, underpinned by a deep oscillation from Zwartz’s bowed bass under trills and pings from Dewhurst’s guitar, before bursting forward with irresistible momentum. The soloists have tuned in completely and they produce soaring open melodic statements integrated somehow with angular strikes and fierce free blowing. As with some other leading exponents of contemporary jazz, vocabulary is not uniformly focussed on the usage of any particular genre, yet it finds its own triumphant unity. Extended codas are sometimes held, slowly fading as if everyone is reluctant to let the melody go. These are times when you can almost see the firelight on the faces of childhood friends. Very New Zealand moments in fact. I know this because I have lived there.

Zwartz began writing after his father (a classical conductor) passed away. His mother, a piano teacher, also died recently. ‘I felt that I had played for everyone and loved it, but there was no record under my own name, no composition with my name on it. I began to study composition and I did a course on film music. Now, if you want me to write a soundtrack for your film, I can!’ Although he doesn’t quite come out and say it, there is a strong sense that Zwartz now feels complete.

After all, two of his great heroes were composers as much as they were bassists. We speak here of Lloyd Swanton and Charles Mingus. I speak too of Jonathan Zwartz.

Don’t miss him with his band.

Jonathan Zwartz and his band at the Jazzgroove Summer Festival 17-20 January 2013

Visit Jonathon Zwartz on the web

Check out the Starfish Club at Clovelly Bowlo