Interview: John Mackey

Interview: John Mackey (saxophone) on the John Mackey Quartet and more

The John Mackey Quartet will be playing the opening concert at this year’s Capital Jazz Project this Friday 2 August. The quartet is a powerhouse of John Mackey, joined by Matt McMahon on piano, Jonathan Zwartz on bass and Simon Barker on drums.’s Miriam Zolin recently caught up with John to ask about the gig and how the ANU School of Music looks after last year’s upheavals. When did the quartet come together?

John Mackey: The group used to perform together on special occasions in Sydney when I lived there from 1994 to May 1999. I contacted the guys especially for the Capital Jazz Project, held in Canberra, to perform the world premiere of my twelve movement work, ‘Canberra Centenary Suite’.

AJN: How would you describe the quartet’s sound?

JM: Historically, the groups sound has been described as, powerful, sensitive, enveloping and ‘as one’!

AJN: What is it about the musical approach or sounds of Simon, Jonathan and Matt that particularly appeals to you?

JM: Simon, Jonathan and Matt are master musicians, exuding music on many levels, including wonderful technique, tone and a rare ability to tell a story with abstract brilliance.

AJN: Tell me about the suite… What inspired the music?

JM: The suite is inspired by the natural beauty, the colours, endless blue skies, stunning autumn hues, crisp exhilarating winters, invigorating springs and harsh summers, and the striking Brindabella Ranges that form a major vein through this beautiful region. The sunrises and sunsets are breathtaking and form a free innovative colour spectrum on a daily basis. I have lived in Canberra for some 14 years and have fallen in love with all that it has to offer and look forward to discovering more.

My beautiful wife and wonderful son have most definitely changed my perspective on life and have allowed me to focus on the beauty in music rather than just brutal technical displays. My wife has been a great inspiration to me.

AJN: When did you first start listening to jazz?

JM: It began in the womb. My brother, Carl Mackey, a sensational saxophonist, and I, grew up listening to the sounds of jazz. When everybody else was listening to Molly Meldrum’s Countdown in the 1970’s we were listening to John Coltrane’s ‘Countdown’. My father gave me John Coltrane’s 1957 album, ‘Rise and Shine’, aged 8, and this transformed my life, and to this day I pay homage to this time in my life.

AJN: When did you start playing?

JM: I started playing saxophone at age 12 after winning a classical scholarship to a top music school in Perth, Churchlands Senior High School.

AJN: Has it always been saxophone?

JM: I began my music education on clarinet at age 10 and loved it.

AJN: Who are your musical heros?

JM: I have many musical heroes including my main influences, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Dexter Gordon, Michael Brecker, Jerry Bergonzi and trumpeter Woody Shaw.

AJN: A year on, what’s been the effect of the changes at the ANU school of music?

JM: The effect has been that, despite a smaller intake, the ANU School of Music has repositioned itself, in line with the University model focussing more on practice-led research and indeed research-practice, as opposed to a traditional conservatorium model. Jazz, Classical and Contemporary students are now on an even playing ground, and are exposed to the breadth of knowledge across genres and industry driven imperatives. A generous program of one-to-one lessons is still offered to those studying a performance major. Fortunately, as musicians, inherently we are researchers, so to fit into the University model is not a difficult one. I feel confident that with a Head of School who is very supportive that we will continue flourish for years to come.

AJN: Has Canberra changed as a result?

JM: The Canberra community has been tireless in its support for the ANU School of Music and while there has been some ‘fence mending’ to do, we are fortunate to have the Friends of the School of Music, who provide wonderful opportunities for our students nationally and internationally. Our community outreach profile remains as present as ever and a fertile future of music making at a high level looks secure.

AJN: How has it affected you?

JM: I am very busy and loving it. I have a wonderful job and the students are very keen and open to new influences. I am looking forward to embarking on my PhD soon and am passionate about the future of this great school.

Concert details

Friday 2 August, 7:30 pm
Street 1 at The Street Theatre

Book tickets >
Information on the Canberra 100 website >