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 wangarattajazz.com
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
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 started to experiment with jazz and improvisation in my mid teens. Until then I had only studied European piano music. I was lucky enough to have very inspiring teachers in high school and beyond – I distinctly remember one teacher in particular recommending that I buy Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and a live Oscar Peterson disc while we were on a school band trip to ‘the big smoke’ (Melbourne) – these records opened the door for me; I was fascinated, particularly by the rhythms. I started to scour my piano teacher’s library for ‘jazz’ and began trying to figure out what was a whole new musical world. That initial curiosity and desire to get inside the music has never left me. I don’t see jazz as a calling or a vocation – it’s more of a lifelong obsession!
Which musicians (jazz or otherwise) have been your greatest influences? What about them stood or stands out for you?
Early on I was taken with Oscar Peterson, Wynton Kelly and Red Garland. Later on it was Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Bud puts himself into every single note; it’s as if the world ceases to exist while he plays. Monk has given me lots to chew on in working out my relationship to the instrument. Of late it’s been Hank Jones, Teddy Wilson, Duke Ellington, Craig Taborn, Paul Motian, Jelly Roll, Charlie Haden, Andrew Hill, Ethan Iverson, Wayne Shorter… looking at that list I realize that I’m struck by the melodic sense of these musicians. Maurizio Pollini is incredible; especially live… such tone, such grace! My peers are very influential as well – I count myself very lucky to be playing with and surrounded by great musicians who are as obsessed with music as I am.
When composing or arranging, where do you get your inspiration?
For composition, things tend to emerge from practising and open-ended exploration at the instrument. I’ve learned the hard way that the more you try and ‘force’ a composition, the more it turns out to be garbage – at least in my experience. As for arranging, I’m fascinated with colour and texture in an ensemble – often the combination of instruments in itself is an inspiration. Since my high school bandleader let me loose on the saxophone quartet and the wind orchestra I have never looked back! I’m sure a lot of what I write and arrange is subconsciously derivative – that’s fine by me – one day I might manage to write something truly original.
What’s your favourite place to play or practise?
I can practise anywhere there is a piano. It may seem like a terrible cliché, but I love playing with and for people who are as into the music as I am. I’ve had some truly memorable moments playing in all sorts of situations, including house parties, pub gigs, club gigs, festivals, impromptu jams… regardless of the setting, it has always been the people involved, whether playing, dancing or listening or all of the above, that have brought those moments to life. To pick a recent highlight that was a great place to play, it must be the jazz festival in Ascona, Switzerland, right on the northern shore of Lake Maggiore. It’s a beautiful location, and the jam session (run by a group of Aussies) that runs into the wee small hours is great fun.
What are you most looking forward to at Wangaratta?
I can’t wait for the hang – it’ll be great to hear everyone play, see everyone, catch up, and have a rave about music. I’m really looking forward to playing with Sam and Raj, and hearing the other finalists. Gerald Clayton will be a highlight.
What are you listening to now?
Right now I’ve got Live at Smalls on the stereo: Ethan Iverson, Bill McHenry, Reid Anderson and Jeff Williams. I’ve also been listening to Mahler’s 5th (Boulez and the Vienna Philharmonic) and Andrew Hill’s Smokestack incessantly lately. Also, it’s an odd week that doesn’t have some Lester Young swinging away around me.