Thomas Avgenicos: ‘Being judged is part of life as a musician’

Thomas Avgenicos was not older than nine, when he first tried to play the trumpet.”It’s a really hard instrument”, he says.”But I actually really enjoyed it. It’s a good challenge to have everyday try to play”.And this is probably all you need to know about Thomas Avgenicos. That as a nine-year-old, he was willing to face an immense challenge, learning to play one of the hardest instruments.”Back then when everything is so new you don’t know anything else”, he says, humbly.”And it was a different challenge than it is now; today it is not only about trying to maintain a standard but also strive to get there everyday”.

At 21, he’s getting there. His name appears in the list of finalists for the National Jazz Awards, a competition held each year at the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues, one of the leading musical events in the country. On the weekend of 3-5 November, the young trumpet player will compete with some of the best trumpet players in the country – and judged by others.”There is also money involved”, he laughs, shaking off any notion of anxiety over the event. “It’s a really big honour to be recognised”, he says.”Many heroes of mine will be there and it will be great to hang out with them all weekend and grab their wisdom. I’m more focused in trying to enjoy it and embracing the occasion rather than getting so nervous about it”.After all, he says, being judged is part of life as a musician.”It’s an endless competition; you’re always competing for gigs, and competing to play in different bands or going for the same awards; and there are always people out there trying to judge you; it’s a fact of life and a fact of the music scene. People are going to be judging you and the best way to go is to be yourself. I can’t do more than that.”

This is not the first time that the name ‘Avgenicos’ comes up in the National Jazz Awards competition. Last year, it was his older brother, the acclaimed 24-year-old saxophonist Michael Avgenicos who competed for the prize, paving the way for his younger brother, same as he’s been doing ever since that day when their mother brought home (jazz educator) Jamey Abersold’s popular ‘Play-A-Long’ music method books.”That was a big turning point”, says Tom, explaining how he’s always been looking up to Michael.”You want to be like your big brother”, he says. “But I didn’t want to play the same instrument as him, so I chose the trumpet, which my dad had been playing, for fun”.The two kids loved playing alongside the CD and improvising.”It’s almost like playing with an actual band and we really enjoyed it instead of just playing ‘Hot Cross Buns’ again”, says Tom.The two brothers have been playing together since.”It’s very special. We were definitely more of the closest type. We didn’t fight much, growing up, mainly because he’s much taller and bigger than me. If I tried to fight him, I would definitely be beaten. So the best way was to become an ally. We’re on the same page when we come to play with each other and we’re always sharing ideas of what we’re working on. I can always trust him that he will be really honest. People often won’t give you an honest answer because they don’t want to offend you. I know my brother will always give me an honest answer.”

The Avgenicos Brothers may have been making waves in the Sydney jazz scene, however Tom’s latest venture does not feature Michael. It is an album (to be released by the end of the year) of original music, performed by a quartet comprised by some of the most acclaimed jazz musicians in Sydney (pianist Matt McMahon, bassist Brett Hirst and drummer Tim Firth), which came as a result of Tom being the winter artist of the Sydney Improvised Music Association ‘Trigger’ initiative, which kick starts the career of outstanding young jazz talents.Asked to describe his compositions, he talks about “short repeated loops, which get manipulated and weave and morph and transition into different loops; that’s how I make the songs. In terms of style I’m into so much different stuff, from be-bop to modern jazz to classical to electronic music, so I guess it’s just a mix of everything that I’m into.”

Tom Avgenicos has posted some of his music online – particularly on Soundcloud. Among these tracks, there is one called ‘resilience’. It is a word that suits him perfectly. Because Tom has been effectively facing challenge after challenge since a very young age, when he was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer that resulted in him going through chemotherapy and having his right eye removed. Now cancer-free for many years, he has never left his visual impairment get in the way of the things he wants to do. “I’ve done everything to the best of my ability”, he says, admitting that at times he’s been reckless.”I often do the opposite of what I should; most of the time I forget that I only have one eye. I guess I haven’t known any other way.”


[This interview was originally printed in ‘Neos Kosmos’]