Selene Messinis: “Each ISM tune can be a journey in many different worlds all at once”

In a conversation about musical surprise and compositional plot twists, ideas which are not rare in jazz and improvisational music, it is not uncommon to find yourself starting off someplace and then finding yourself someplace else. But I had not anticipated, when I set off to meet Selene Messinis, one of the most luminous young jazz pianists in Melbourne, that our talk would reach a point when it would start resembling an advertisement for Blackburn High School, of which she is an alumnus. “The school kind of fostered that love of music in me”, she says, praising the passionate teachers she encountered there: “You could really tell that they were there because they really cared about music and they wanted students to play as much as they could; that’s why I was allowed to play three instruments, piano, oboe and saxophone”. Selene was already taking classical piano lessons since the age of six, but it was at high school that she decided to pursue a career in music. “Because of how passionate the teachers were and how active they were in the music community as musicians, we were inspired”, she remembers. “It was never thought that you shouldn’t become a musician, because this wouldn’t pay the bills. You would see these teachers who had somehow found a way to make it work in their lives, they subconsciously taught us that it was possible”.

This was not the only way in which the East-suburban school, famous for its musical program, proved to be different than other Melbourne schools. “In my school, the cool kids were those in the bands, the musicians”, she laughs. “Everybody wanted to be like them. So, as a sax player, I joined the jazz band and this opened my eyes. It was a social thing, I loved playing with other musicians; it was the most fun I’ve ever had in musical context”. The following year, she switched instruments in the band, shifting from sax to piano and she started taking jazz piano lessons with Steve Sedergreen.

As famous as it may be for its music programs, Blackburn High was not Selene’s first exposure to jazz. This came through her fathers record collection. Coming to Australia from Greece in 1980, Dr. George Messinis (now a Senior Research Fellow at the Victoria University Institute of Strategic Economic Studies) was keen to broaden his horizons and expose himself to as much new music as he could. “I suppose, as a student, he was a bit of a hippy”, says the pianist of her father. “He would go to record stores and buy anything; he’d have a listen and discuss about it with his friends. One day he came across a Dave Brubeck record and started playing it from when I was born”. Keith Jarrett came a few years later. “At the time, I dismissed it as something dad was interested in”, she says, retrospectively appreciating the way her parents shaped her own musical world. Today, Selene states Jarrett’s name first among her heroes: “I know everyone says that, but he’s long been one of my favourite piano players. I’ve always loved his sense of lyricism and swing; most people don’t associate Jarrett with swing, but I think he has this incredible sense of swing that I believe he got from horn players. Because I also play the saxophone, I understand articulation and certain things like ghost notes, I try to emulate it when Im playing”.  The mandatory discussion about influences makes for some interesting name-dropping: Hiromi (for her “crazy time signatures”), Avishai Cohen, Troy Roberts, and of course, Chick Corea: “I’ve always been fascinated by his sense of time and feel and precision, because it’s so exact and you can tell there’s so much thought behind it”. She also expresses her love for “that fusion thing” and grooves: “I’m using the word not as it is used in the soul context. I think of groove as something that exists in all music; it has got this driving force, it moves the music along”.

All these references, alongside her interest in patterns and structures and mathematical logic shaped her style as a pianist, a musician and a composer, as is evident in the album ‘This Canvas’ that she recorded with her trio, ISM. Comprised by herself on piano, Isaac Gunnoo on bass and Maddison Carter on drums, the band sprang out of the Victorian College of the Arts, where she went to study, straight after school. “The majority of my time was spent learning with Joe Chindamo. Getting to hang with him and all the other amazing teachers was such a cool experience”, she says. “So, Isaac and I were studying together and he already had a relationship with Maddison from high school. When he also came to VCA, we had this crazy idea to start a trio. I had never really delved into that context before; I was always playing in larger combos, or alongside horns, which would carry out the melody, but this was new to me. I guess I was young”.

She is still young. Its only been two years since she graduated, and in fact, the trio’s album would not happen if they hadnt won a VCA competition. “The prize was free recording time at the VCA studio”, she says. “So we had the idea of an album; we did a couple of sessions, had the mix but we didn’t like the outcome, it was a bit contrived. We thought that this was going to be our debut album forever and we wanted to be proud of it. So we set aside a week last year and recorded it at my house, in our own pace. We would sit down and have lunch or coffee, talk about life, tell jokes and then we’d play a piece. We might do 4-5 takes in a row and then take a break, have another coffee, watch a movie and go back to try another tune”. The result captures the special relationship between the three young musicians, each tune offering many ‘plot twists’, shifting moods as it evolves. “Each tune can be a journey in many different worlds all at once”, Selene agrees, describing the creative process. “We all composed three tunes each for the album, having the other members in mind. There are a lot of different moods, because we have different compositional styles. Maddie writes a lot of quirky, frantic compositions, still heavily rhythmically driven, with lots of space for free improvisation and Isaac would write more traditional jazz tunes with beautiful melodies. I often have the bass playing the melodies, or the drums might be floating on the top, because I’ve always wanted to be a drummer, so I sort of try to make that happen on the piano. I care so much about rhythm and keeping time and groove, that in my compositions there’s usually a lot of business in rhythmic patterns and ideas with very simple melodies”.

Despite the relatively small period of time that ISM have been around as a trio, they have a rare kind of empathy and artistic relationship. “It is because we know each other so well”, she says. “It’s sort of like when you’re talking to one of your best friends, just having a conversation; because you know each other so well, you can sort of predict how they’re going to react when you throw them some good news or bad news. So, when Maddie does a certain cymbal crash, for instance, I know that he’s inviting me to continue and play with him; he might give me one second afterwards to make that decision, whether I want to jump on or not and if I don’t, he’s also okay; he’ll continue on his own, make it into his own thing and I’ll contribute in a different way”.

This is a fascinating description of collective improvisation in a live context. Selene agrees. “It’s hard, because there is this pressure in improvisation to have this divine intervention to play the best solo you’ve played in your life”, she says. One can’t help but wonder: why do it then?

“Because sometimes you get that”, she snaps back. “You get to the end of the solo and say ‘I don’t remember any of that’. You surprise yourself”. Her teachers would be proud.

*ISM launch their album on Sunday 19 March, at Uptown Jazz Cafe.


**A slightly different version of this story was published on Saturday 11 March in Neos Kosmos’