National Jazz Awards Finalists – Q&A with Joe O’Connor

Each year since 2005, in the month leading up to the jazz festival in Wangaratta, Miriam Zolin interviews the finalists in the National Jazz Awards.  The awards are decided at Wangaratta in a series of heats culminating in a finals performance on the Sunday of the festival. Wangaratta Jazz Festival in 2013 runs from Friday 1 to Monday 4 November. Find out more on their website

This year the awards feature keyboard players and the ten finalists are: Hugh Barrett | Matthew Sheens | Matthew Boden | Steve Barry | Tal Cohen | Andrew Butler | Dave Spicer | Daniel Gassin | Joseph O’Connor | James Bowers

Joseph O’Connor

When did you start playing jazz and why? For example, was there a ‘moment’ when it came to you as a calling or vocation?

I’ve been interested in jazz since primary school when I started playing in my school’s big band. Around this time, my parents bought me compilations of music by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. I was particularly taken with the big band music at first and gradually started trying to emulate what I was listening to, learning by trial and error. I never really had a single moment when I decided to pursue music as a vocation. The idea just gradually took hold.

Which musicians (jazz or otherwise) have been your greatest influences? What about them stood or stands out for you?

Hearing Keith Jarrett’s standards trio for the first time when I was about 17 was a revelation. I’d barely listened to any jazz recorded after 1965 at the time and Keith’s playing sounded so fresh to me. I listened to a lot of Keith in my first couple of years of university when I was just starting to get a handle on a jazz vocabulary, and his expansive phrasing and lyricism is something that I think has ended up in my playing (for better or worse). I’ve also gone through periods of listening intensively to Paul Bley’s work in the early 1960s, Jimmy Giuffre, Andrea Keller, Marc Hannaford and Hampton Hawes (among others), and have also been quite influenced by some twentieth century classical composition. Most recently, I’ve been studying the music of Ruth Crawford Seeger, an early American modernist composer who wrote a small but distinguished body of compositions using an idiosyncratic approach to non-tonal counterpoint.

When composing or arranging, where do you get your inspiration?

When I start a new piece, I often isolate a particular aspect of an existing composition that I admire and use this as a starting point for my own work. This might be a theoretic construct, a mood, an interesting relationship between different instruments or any other feature that I feel compelled to explore.

I find the process of composing, rehearsing and performing  original music incredibly fulfilling, but I don’t really experience any kind of inspiration. If I’m struggling to make progress on a composition, the only way forward is to try lots of different things. There is a common misconception that accomplished musicians are fortunate to have been blessed with particular talents or inspiration, when they are more often blessed with an exceptional work ethic.

Joe O'Connor playing - black and whiteWhat’s your favourite place to play or practise?

I get very excited when the opportunity presents to play a really nice grand piano in a large, reverberant room. All of the details in the instrument’s sound seem to be amplified. The harmonics in the treble are livelier, the bass is fuller, and the smallest sounds can project with surprising presence.

What are you most looking forward to at Wangaratta?

I’m most looking forward to seeing the other pianists play in the competition. They are all exceptional players and are extremely varied in their approaches, which should make for interesting listening. I’m also looking forward to seeing some great Australian artists, particularly Sam Anning’s trio with Julian Wilson and Allan Browne. I sincerely hope that Allan is well enough to play because it would be a shame to miss such a wonderful trio.

What are you listening to now?

While responding to these questions, I’ve listened to a Schoenberg string quartet, a couple of compositions by Ruth Crawford Seeger, and a bit of Billie Holiday and Lester Young.