National Jazz Awards Finalists – Q&A with Steve Barry

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

Steve Barry

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

Steve BarryI started taking lessons at about 5, but was a pretty terrible student until my teacher turned me onto the jazz syllabus the ABRSM in the UK had just put out when I was about 11, as a last ditch attempt to catch my interest. It worked…I think I’d been frustrated by the rigidity of the classical repertoire, and enjoyed the flexibility of jazz syllabus and the way it encouraged improvisation. I started a trio with some high school mates a few years later, we picked up a regular weekend gig at a local cafe playing standards for $10 and hour and a meal…and the rest is history!

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

This one is always hard to keep brief, but in a nutshell: Oscar Peterson for his swing feel, Keith Jarret for his inexhaustible ear for melody, Herbie Hancock for the same reason as well as his harmonic concept, Brad Mehldau for all of that as well as his approach to solo piano. Then there’s the usual classical guys like Bach, Chopin, Debussy, Ravel – a long list. I get a huge amount of inspiration from other musicians, and I’m fortunate to get to play with some incredible players on a regular basis. I’ve also learned many musical and philosophical lessons from all the mentors I’ve had over the years both here and in New Zealand, and that’s a long list too.

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

Generally just sitting at the piano experimenting with melodies or harmonic ideas, and often inspired by something I’ve heard. I like imposing parameters on myself when writing – manipulating a simple melody or sticking to a basic harmonic formula and so on, it’s always surprising what you come up with.

What’s your favourite place to play or practise?

I’ve spent a bit of time playing around the country this year and have played in some great venues, it’s a really healthy scene. I get most of my work done at home on my piano, interrupted every so often by an attention seeking golden retriever…

What are you most looking forward to at Wangaratta?

As always hearing some amazing music – it looks like a great year. It’ll be great to play with Sam and Raj for the first time, and I’m looking forward to hearing the other finalists and sharing some (beers and) thoughts on music.

What are you listening to now?

A lot of classical music for my PhD, at the moment Debussy’s and Chopin’s sets of preludes, and Mark Isaacs has just released a beautiful album of music for solo piano. I’ve also been listening to a lot of more traditional African music – there’s a great album of half Ligeti’s etudes and half music of the Aka pygmies from Central West Africa, which is a fascinating juxtaposition. Jazz-wise Fred Hersch is a big inspiration to me at the moment, as well as a bunch of guys both close to home and overseas. I also can’t keep away from those 60s Miles quintet albums, there’s always one floating around in my car.