Paul Grabowsky – The Polymath Pianist

Profile by John Shand

Honoured with an Order of Australia this year, he has been a jazz pianist in Germany and a TV celebrity in Australia, the founder of the Australian Art Orchestra and artistic director of the Adelaide Festival. He has composed for opera and film, and worked for the ABC, Australia Council and Monash University. The challenge, you see, when writing about Paul Grabowsky is one of reductionism. His career – improvised rather than plotted – which, all things being equal, is only half way through, has already been so multifarious that the complete story would require a book.

Speaking in Tongues

Paul Grabowsky | Image © Peter Karp
Paul Grabowsky | Image © Peter Karp

As Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at Monash University’s Music School Grabowsky is currently involved in a program called Building The 21st-Century Musician, and, while he sees jazz as now being just one step along the way to becoming a creative musician rather than an end-point, he thinks it remains ‘one of the great ways to learn how to improvise. It’s a fantastic method to learn about how to put together the various elements of music to tell a coherent story.’ Music, more broadly, he sees as a group of intersecting languages. ‘We just did a recording with the Monash Art Ensemble and [US trumpeter] Dave Douglas of a suite he composed especially for us,’ he says, ‘based around ars nova, which is French music of the 14th century. The idea of a jazz musician exploring that musical language would have been almost unheard of in the 20th century, but is not in any way surprising in the 21st century.’

Grabowsky was something of a pioneer in thinking along these lines, with projects like Ringing the Bell Backwards (that begat the Australian Art Orchestra), the AAO’s Passion (based on Bach’s St Matthew Passion) and its two Crossing Roper Bar albums (placing the AAO with song-men from Arnhem Land, which he describes as ‘some of the most interesting music that I’ve ever been a part of’).

Interstate Breeding Program

Concepts aside, one of Grabowsky’s most significant contributions to creative music has been to popularise the pooling of players from different Australian states. Common enough in the 1960s, the practice had waned until Grabowsky did it with the Wizards of Oz, the band he co-formed with saxophonist Dale Barlow in 1986. Barlow and Grabowsky had linked up while the latter was living in Munich, and discussed what he calls ‘this terrible Sydney/Melbourne cleft’, and the importance of bridging it if Australian jazz was to progress.

He also pooled interstate players with his Alto Summit (bringing together Bernie McGann, Bob Bertles, Ian Chaplin and Grabowksy’s trio), the 1988 bicentennial-celebrating Australian Jazz Orchestra (which he co-led) and of course the AAO. His pioneering in this regard encouraged such projects as Red Fish Blue and bands led by Julien Wilson, Mike Nock, Elliott Dalgleish, Jonathan Zwartz and Stu Hunter. Joining the list is the sextet that recorded The Bitter Suite, his main current project (while on the side he has a forthcoming first solo piano CD, the Monash Art Ensemble and continuing to play with the AAO).

The Bernie Factor

l-r: Paul Grabowksy, Jonathan Zwartz, Bernie McGann and Tim Firth. Springwood, 2012 | image © Peter Karp
l-r: Paul Grabowksy, Jonathan Zwartz, Bernie McGann and Tim Firth. Springwood, 2012 | image © Peter Karp

‘The great thing about this music,’ Grabowsky says, ‘is that we lift each other up and carry each other forward. I get very, very inspired by the people I work with.’ One of those was Bernie McGann, with whom Grabowsky’s was co-leading a quartet when the great saxophonist died. ‘It’s heart-breaking,’ he says. ‘But every bar of music I played with Bernie I’m thankful for. We had a very long association, as it turned out, and he taught me a lot. He had such great integrity… Bernie kept me honest. Bernie didn’t brook fools. He had a very finely attenuated bullshit meter. I felt very honoured to play with him, because I think as a musician I’m stylistically very different, and maybe that’s why it worked so well.’

Although usually leaning to more exotic projects, Grabowsky revelled in this project’s straight-ahead jazz. ‘I started as a hard-core bebopper,’ he says. ‘I was a Bud Powell man. Those roots run very deep, and Bernie brought out that side of me. And for all the claims I make about jazz being this or that I love jazz, and I’m proud to have been able to call myself a jazz musician.’

To Munich and Back

He was certainly that when living in Munich in the early 1980s, and playing with such luminaries as Chet Baker, Art Farmer and Johnny Griffin. But after five years he felt compelled to return to Australia. ‘I wanted to play a role in making the music our own,’ he says. ‘I also felt very strongly that in developing my own language I was going to have a far better chance of arriving at something quite unusual than if I had decided to stay in either Europe or the States.’

This sense of his having the potential to make a difference was something that had crept up on him as a teenager. He attended the conservative Wesley College boys’ school, where, until his final year, he felt himself a ‘marginal character’ because of his lack of sporting aptitude. Then in Year 12 he had his first experience of playing jazz in the school big band, was captain of the debating time, and shared with two others the highest results in Victoria for the Year 12 exams. ‘Those three things were kind of life-changing,’ he says.

Life-changing in another way was Grabowsky’s time leading the house band on television’s Tonight Live With Steve Vizard in the early ’90s. ‘All of a sudden I went from more or less obscurity to being a household name,’ he says. ‘That was very useful in hindsight, because it allowed me to slip under the radar certain projects that wouldn’t have had a chance of flying otherwise.’

Of course he was well-established on the jazz scene already, having formed his magical trio with bassist Gary Costello and drummer Allan Browne as soon as he returned from Munich. During their long residency at the Limerick Arms they played with such visiting Americans as Herb Ellis, Johnny Griffin, Al Cohn and Warren Vache.

AAO and Beyond

Paul Grabowsky | image courtesy of Roger Mitchell at
Paul Grabowsky | image courtesy of Roger Mitchell at

One of Grabowsky’s joys in running the AAO has also been its various collaborative ventures. ‘Working with Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter on Ruby’s Story had a huge effect on me,’ he says. ‘The other one was The Theft of Seita with the Balinese. These were amazing opportunities to test-fly the whole notion about jazz and improvised music being a really great way to build a bridge between musical languages: that it wasn’t this domain of an inward-looking elite who are only interested in their own tradition and their own music, but an actual method of musical diplomacy and sharing of ideas.’

In January 2013 Peter Knight took over as artist director of the AAO. ‘I’d been thinking about succession for a long time,’ says Grabowsky, ‘because I really needed to know that the AAO wasn’t just going to evaporate if I stepped down, and I wanted to put the lie to the view that many people held that it was my band. I’ve never thought of it as my band. I’ve always thought of it as a kind of a resource, and an ideas factory and the expression of a philosophy of music.’

Grabowsky sees his work as a festival director, most notably for the Adelaide Festival, as rather tangential. ‘It’s always been wonderful to have that opportunity,’ he says, ‘and I’ve loved everything about those jobs, but they don’t take away from the fact that the end of the day I’m a piano player… Everything that I’ve ever done in my life was informed by my basis in jazz music: the ability to improvise, the ability to react spontaneously to situations, the ability to think laterally. I think these are all necessary attributes of a good jazz musician. The other very important elements are listening and trust, which you have to evince to be a good part of the band, and also the relationship with the audience, which is a really important thing to me: that symbiotic kind of feedback-loop.’


Paul Grabowsky on the web