Led by drummer Chris Broomhead, Refraction fits in perfectly in the modern jazz trio ecosystem, as it is developing under the influence of modern masters, like Brad Mehldau, Tord Gustavsen, Jef Neve, Ethan Iverson (of the Bad Plus) and the late Esbjorn Svensson. Name-dropping aside, the trio’s music balances between the state of serenity and an intense urgency, which justifies the title of its latest offering, Inerrant Space. Not because any work of art can boast no error, but because the album is the space where all is permitted, so that nothing can be wrong. Here, Chris Broomhead shares the album – and the trio’s – backstory.
AustralianJazz.Net: What is the Refraction trio’s history?
Chris Broomhead: The idea for such a trio has been with me for years. There was a couple of false starts with some early lineups but it wasn’t until I met and played with Brenton Foster (piano) and Marty Holoubek (Refraction’s original bass player) at a wedding gig in 2013. We subsequently had a few rehearsals after that, working up some material I had already written and, realising that I had a functioning trio, started giggling around. I also started writing more material leading up to our first recording in mid-2014.
AJN: How would you describe yourself as a leader?
CB: In terms of leading a band, I hope mainly that I can get my ideas across and the other members can run with them. I’m not a big ‘visionary’ person, in the sense of being a big-talking, go-getter type, but I certainly have an idea of what I’m after, and if I can get that across and energise the other two, then that’s a good thing. The challenge early on was keeping the trio the same lineup in order to build some sort of consistency. There was a lot of clashing schedules gig-wise, so it was difficult actually getting to rehearse and gig. Probably the other challenge is that thing I just mentioned of getting my vision for the music articulated to the other guys. As is the case with many musicians who write their own music, I have the sound and the ideal in my head but getting that out is often the most difficult thing. Even for myself playing drums, I might have the idea of what I want in my head but I have to alter my own playing habits to conform to that.
AJN: In what way is ‘Inerrant Space‘ a follow-up to ‘As we were‘?
CB: I think there’s a definite continuation from the first album to this new one. I feel that they both have a journeying quality as well as a variety of colours and dynamics. ‘Inerrant Space’ is certainly a better sounding production and with the addition of Jordan Tarento on double bass there’s a different and new colour thrown in to the mix. I think the way the trio plays has evolved and is sounding more unified – which is what happens with time spent playing together, and I think the new recording reflects this.
We’re still definitely exploring the textual and dynamic changes, going from relaxed tempos and feels through to some faster and more frenetic pieces. I hope that the trio is developing a ‘sound’ which carries on from ‘As We Were’.
AJN: If ‘Inerrant Space’ was the soundtrack of a movie, what kind of movie would that be?
CB: Hmm. The album is reasonably varied but perhaps it would be a good soundtrack to a something of a contemplative adventure journey. Not sure if that’s a genre or even a possible plot, but that’s what I think of.
AJN: How do you explain the perennial appeal of the classic jazz piano trio format?
CB: Much like the guitar trio format in rock, the jazz piano trio definitely has a sound which is unique. The composition of the instrument is such that each member can have their own voice and still blend in to the other voices, which I guess is how bands get their own sound generally. I enjoy the setting because it’s simple and elegant and I can write music that exploits this simplicity: it’s something that doesn’t always work with other instruments for one reason or another. But maybe that’s just my personal preference.
AJN: If you could pick any artist, no limitations whatsoever to join the ‘Refraction Quartet’, who would that be?
CB: Probably a trumpet player. There was a guy that played trumpet on Allan Holdsworth’s ‘The 16 Men Of Tain’ album, and I really enjoyed his playing. I must find out who that was!
[ed.note: the trumpet player on the recording is Walt Fowler]
AJN: Who are your Heroes?
CB: Historically, I would probably have to say Weather Report. That might seem incongruent considering the sort of music that Refraction plays, but not really when you look at it. Aside from the fact that I love synths and their forward grooves, their approach to writing and soloing – or not soloing – is something that I try to bring to Refraction’s music. I especially like that fact that they can play a whole set and no-one has really ‘soloed’ in the traditional sense, and I also really like Joe Zawinul’s often through-composed tunes.
AJN: How did you get into jazz?
CB: I came to jazz from more of a jazz-fusion background. My older brother (who is also a musician) gave me a bunch of cassettes and CDs when I was young and they included the Yellowjackets and the Brecker Brothers; I also remember picking up a cassette copy of Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth live album ‘Invitation’ from a school fete. I spent lots of time too listening to PBS FM’s jazz shows and gradually widened the range of what I listen to through that.
AJN: Your album is labeled ‘European jazz’ on bandcamp; what does that mean to you?
CB: Hmm, yes ‘European Jazz’ is an interesting label. I’ve used that mainly so that people can get a quick idea of our style. I’m often uncomfortable using it because it can seem bit pretentious, especially considering we don’t live in Europe, nor come from there (directly anyhow). I guess what I really mean is that the music that I’m trying to write has a sense of the ‘chamber music’ thing, which is so often identified with European classical music, and also my great appreciation for the ECM label and the artists who record for it. Whilst I’m not trying to necessarily imitate any of their music I’m certainly trying to imbue their aesthetic in some of what Refraction is doing.
AJN: What is your idea of Australian Jazz?
CB: I must confess that I haven’t as yet been able to identify an Australian sound that I like, as distinct from the large array of amazing players we have in this country. It’s interesting to think about how Aussie jazz is evolving. There are some groups I think are great like Luke Howard, Andrea Keller and Nat Bartsch and who have been doing lots of things but it’s funny, it still seems like they’re going for something that is distinctly European or classical as opposed to an Australian jazz approach. It’s interesting too that a number of people have chosen to record overseas instead of here. For example, Luke Howard recorded his previous trio album with Jan Erik in Oslo (where heaps of ECM artists have recorded!), Brenton Foster recorded most of his debut album in New York, and Andy Sugg’s new album was also recorded in New York. I remember hearing James Morrison being asked what he thought was one of the main qualities of Australian jazz and he said “larrikinism”. I think I have a lot of difficulty with that. To me “larrikinism” connotes a sort of trivial, anything-goes, it’s-all-one-big-joke kind of attitude which I don’t identify with. I’m not meaning to dismiss James Morrison by the way, not at all. It’s just that I don’t identify with the types of descriptions that are used for Australian jazz at this point. I’m also aware that I probably sound like I’m taking my music a bit too seriously. I hope not.
AJN: Which song best describes your current state of mind?
CB: Probably the tune ‘Departure’. Perhaps because it’s in the middle of a few different styles we explore on the album.