Are piano and sax duos trending? Are they back? Or have they never gone anywhere, always being one of the staple formations of jazz for decades? Whatever the answer, one thing is for certain: one of Australia’s most exquisite piano-sax duets is being reformed. Saxophonist Andy Sugg and pianist Andy Vance are relaunching their duo – and they do so in the most appropriate manner: with a gig at the Jazz Lab.Andy Sugg was kind enough to shed some light on the duet’s new venture.
Why did you decide to revive the duo?
The duo was put on pause partly because we were living in different states, and then because we were starting to play a lot overseas with our own projects.
We started going to Europe individually; Vance was playing and teaching (still is) and I doing much the same. I was drawn to Paris because it’s really the home of the saxophone. It was invented there, and the playing traditions there are very heavy. Also, the Parisian music scene has its own vibe which is really vital. Later, I reconnected with New York as well.
At one level, I think if you’re an artist, you inhabit the world of ideas. These ideas don’t have national boundaries; if you want to be a part of it at the highest level, youve got to go where the ideas are thriving in various contexts. Then you bring it home and play it into your projects here, like the duo. It’s a privilege to be able to do that.
So, when we started playing together again, we found that our own musical personalities had developed a lot, and the music we played together was just so much richer, more assured and all this development was still directly translatable into the duo concept we had already established.
How would you describe your collaboration with Andy Vance?
The collaboration is very close – thirty-odd years playing together! I admire Vance’s dedication, his unwavering dedication. His commitment to the highest musical standards, his preparedness to be his own best/worst critic. And then, of course, there’s all the technical things: his harmonic language, his compositional strength, the tremendous pathos and lyricism he is able to frame in a compressed musical setting… These are heavy skills!
What is the greatest challenge that you’ve had to face together?
The challenges come from outside, not within. They relate to the nature of being an artist in Australia; of living the artistic life. It’s things like no money, the digital age’s assault on the culture of live music-making, the value that the arts enjoy in this country – stuff like that…
What is it about the duet setting that you find most interesting?
Well, it’s like you’re having a conversation with just one other person, instead of three or four others. It’s more targeted, focused, more direct, you’re more exposed, it’s a bit more intimate. All of these things can make a more intense musical experience, with a degree of subtlety and nuance that you tend not to go for when there’s more sound (bass and drums, etc) in the mix.
Which is your favourite duet album?
‘Omerta’ by Liebman and Beirach is fabulous. Late ’70s, I think. But my favourite duo piece is Herbie and Wayne doing Herbie’s tune, Joanna, on Wayne’s ‘Native Dancer‘ (similar age, I think). This just blows me away every time. It’s interesting, because there’s not much Herbie and Wayne directly in what Andy and I do, but they’re a huge influence just the same. I’ve played ‘Joanna’ with others before, and I end up wanting to do it just like Wayne. There is no other way!
What should anyone expect from your new performances?
Well, the level of communication is very high. We know each other’s styles so well that the music always comes together in uncanny ways. This is a real asset when the music has a lot of improvisation, as ours does. It’s basically a musical conversation happening at a very high level. This is what the best jazz really is all about. The tunes are mostly original, and the influences are very modern. The music looks forward; and again, in the best traditions of jazz, I think, embraces an eclectic range of influences.
What is your take on the Australian Jazz scene at the moment?
Such a big question – but such an interesting one, too! The scene here is bristling with creativity, just as it always has been. Whether we actually recognise that to be the case sometimes depends on external things, like the tastes of the audience at any particular moment, the attention of the media etc. But the creative music-making here continues unabated. I think there are two forces at play in Australian jazz (and Australian culture more generally) and they are:
1) a genuine fascination with and love of much American music, especially American jazz, and
2) a genuine critique of that fascination that goes something like: “they do it their way; but we do it like this…”
I think these two forces interact in ways that are almost impossible to track, but that certainly generate a lot of creative energy in this country. So the future of creative music-making in this country is terrific, but how exactly creatives will get their work out to their audience (and make a living from it) is too hard to know – its still in transition, I think.
What does jazz mean to you?
Jazz is a music that’s contemporary, one that draws its rhythms from the street, one that gives a high priority to improvisation, one that has a permanent identity crisis – it’s always floating between art and popular music. It’s also the most exciting and most important music of the 20th – 21st century. If in doubt, check out the new Coltrane doco ‘Chasing Trane’ on Netflix! Wow!
Which tune best describes your current state of mind?
Workin’ – Miles Davis!