2014 Freedman Fellow Announced: Aaron Choulai

From the media release, slightly edited for style.

Pianist and composer Aaron Choulai has today been announced as the 2014 Freedman Jazz Fellow.

MC and ABC Jazz presenter Gerry Koster was joined by a sold-out audience at the 12th Freedman Jazz Final, presented live last night from the Sydney Opera House.  After a thrilling ‘play off’ by four of Australia’s most outstanding creative jazz artists – trombonist Shannon Barnett, vocalist Gian Slater and pianist Matthew Sheens –  Tokyo-based Aaron Choulai took home the $15,000 cash prize.

Pared back approach

Aaron Choulai_Freedman Fellowship 2014CKaren Steains-3285Choulai’s unique improvisational style was on display as he opened the evening accompanied only by Melbourne drummer Joseph Talia. The pared-back musical setting of piano and drums revealed Choulai’s creativity in a performance that featured his own composition, Is,followed by an inventive arrangement of Let’s Call One by jazz giant Thelonious Monk, a daring interpretation of James Blake’s The Wilhelm Scream and a playful take on the old pop song Tennessee Waltz.

Choulai, who studied at the Victorian College of the Arts with Slater and Barnett said of the experience ‘The performances last night confirmed that Australian jazz is definitely alive and thriving. Musically speaking any of us deserved to win, and in some ways winning against friends is bitter sweet’.

The Fellowship recognises excellence in the field of jazz and is awarded to a candidate under the age of 35 years who demonstrates exceptional artistic achievement. Candidates are nominated by jazz leaders from around the country. Each candidate must submit a career enhancing creative project in which their award money would be spent.

A difficult choice – strong musical identities

The judges, Chris Cody, Andrew Gander and 2003 Freedman Fellow Phil Slater, deliberated late into the night. In a group statement, they said of their decision ‘We had four very strong musical identities and it was a most difficult choice. In the end, we chose Aaron Choulai, a very exciting young musician, a risk-taker, a very clear musical personality. Aaron already has a great deal to offer and we are sure there is much more to come. We congratulate all the candidates. They make Australia a very strong country for jazz’

Aaron Choulai’s plans

Choulai, who has been living and working in Japan since winning the Japanese Ministry of Education ‘Mombushu’ Scholarship to study at the Tokyo College of the Arts, will use his Fellowship prize to invest in quality equipment which would enable him to record and disseminate his music independently online. This will allow him greater freedom to respond to rapidly changing music market while growing his fan base. The first of his recording projects would be a piano and drum duet as seen in his performance last night. Choulai was nominated by past Freedman Fellow and three-time ARIA award-winning pianist Andrea Keller.

Choulai went onto say ‘I am very grateful to the Freedman Foundation which has enabled me to pursue a creative project that I have been wanting to for some time and would have not been able to do otherwise’.