Listening with Australian ears

Cornelia Street Cafe in New York City

by Virginia Lloyd

When I first moved to New York in 2006, the last people I wanted to meet were Australians. I had left the country to start again. It was on the other side of the world from where I’d grown up, fallen in love, and been widowed. That was part of the point.

Cornelia Street Cafe in New York City
Cornelia Street Cafe in New York City

In New York I had regular access to the kind of musicians who Australians see perform at the major arts festivals, if at all. The surprising truth was that some of the music I heard in my adopted city fell a bit flat. Whether I was at the 55 Bar, Smalls, or (less frequently) the Jazz Standard or Birdland, a highly accomplished but somewhat familiar sound seemed to prevail. It struck me as an unintended consequence of the movement of jazz education into the academy in recent decades.

In much the same way as advanced-degree writing courses in the US are accused of producing novelists who write with a similar voice, in gig after gig I discerned mastery of the tradition and extreme technical facility more than I heard the pounding heart of those playing the instruments. Not yet familiar with the range of new music at Jazz Gallery and Cornelia St Cafe, my early gig choices were not only limited by budget.

Some combination of Mike Nock, Bernie McGann, Alistair Spence, and Ten Part Invention…

It wasn’t until I’d been living in the city for a few months that I realised how much Australian jazz I was listening to on the 30GB brick of an iPod that had been a farewell present from my parents. Several mornings each week I walked in Riverside Park on the upper west side of Manhattan to get some fresh air and time out from an unhinged roommate. Some combination of Mike Nock, Bernie McGann, Alistair Spence, and Ten Part Invention accompanied me. My longing for the sounds of home-made jazz felt less like homesickness than a craving for missing nutrients in my local musical diet.

What does Australian jazz sound like? All I can say is I know it when I hear it. In many Australian compositions I hear a casual playfulness floating over deep water. To that I contrast the cool detachment that characterises many Scandinavian jazz recordings, or the cracking firestorm of many post-bop players who hail from the east coast of the US. The distinctive Australian sound comes from a community of musicians living and working closely together over a period of years.

As my wallet tightened and my listening broadened, I moved to Brooklyn and explored smaller venues such as Barbes and Puppets. This was more like it: small but highly engaged audiences; collaborative music projects by young musicians that reflected diverse influences from outside the jazz tradition (hip hop, Massive Attack) as well as from within it. It was at these venues I discovered new favourites like Noah Preminger, Ben Street, and Mike Moreno.

I realise I’ve mentioned a lot of male musicians. That’s because I’m not much into jazz singing and many female jazz musicians are vocalists. I was thrilled to see Perth-born bass player Linda Oh recently at the Village Vanguard with Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano. This was difficult music but you’d never have known it from her relaxed stage presence.

…a niche but devoted following

Just like in Melbourne and Sydney, the jazz scene in New York is small relative to the city’s population, and the music has a niche but devoted following. Aside from one or two small presenting organisations, there seems to be nothing remotely like the funding environment  for jazz presenters (such as it is) that exists in Australia. And while a few venues have closed, exciting new performance spaces are cropping up, such as the Shape Shifter Lab.

Conversely, individual musicians in New York can hope to benefit from significant philanthropic funding if their stars shine brightly enough, as it currently the case for Indian-American pianist Vijay Iyer. That kind of financial payoff is slightly more likely than winning the lottery.

…concentration of highly skilled musicians…

The unassailable advantage New York has over anywhere else in the jazz world is its concentration of highly skilled musicians playing together and pushing each other all the time. At Smalls recently I heard pianist Sean Wayland play (with the very busy Matt Clohesy on bass) and he sounded much like he did when I first heard him at the Side On Cafe in Annandale — only significantly better.

Without realising it, when I moved to New York I brought with me a pair of ears shaped by years of listening to live performances and recordings of excellent Australian jazz. Most of these musicians had at one point or another studied and performed in New York, but their experiences had seemed only to deepen and intensify the uniqueness of their respective sounds. Watching Linda Oh play, I fancied I could still hear the Australian in the musician, even as she becomes one more musician no longer living in Australia.


Sean Wayland, Matt Clohesy, Jochen Rueckert @ Smalls Jazz Club 5 February 2013



Sean Wayland on the web

See Linda Oh‘s website

More about Matt Clohesy

About the author

Virginia Lloyd is a writer and literary agent based in Brooklyn. She is a former Vice-President of SIMA