Alex Boneham: “Getting to return to Australia with The Vampires is extra special”

Are The Vampires Australia’s hottest band at the moment? The world-jazz quartet – comprised by Jeremy Rose (sax), Nick Garbett (trumpet), Alex Boenham (bass) and Alex Masso (drums) – is certainly enjoying a moment of international stardom, with their much-praised collaboration with the stellar Benin-born, US-based guitarist Lionel Loueke. The band’s regular bassist, Alex Boneham was not around at the time of the recording, but he had a good excuse: he was engaged with the Thelonious Monk Institute ensemble, playing alongside legends such as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. Having just come back to Australia, to join his bandmates mid-way in their massive tour, Alex certainy has a lot of stories to share.

How does it feel, coming back to Australia to tour with the Vampires?

I’m really excited about coming back for this tour with the guys. I last played with them on on our European Tour back in October last year and we had a really great time together. I also don’t get back to Australia nearly as often as I’d like, so getting to return with The Vampires is extra special.

How would you describe the Vampires, their sound and the dynamics of the group?

This is always a tough one. I used to describe The Vampires as jazz/reggae but that doesnt really do it justice. To me, the group was born out of a love for the open-sounding, cordless groups of the 1960s, specifically Ornette Coleman’s quartet with Don Cherry, mixed with a love for all the great music that exists around the globe – from reggae to Afro-Peruvian, Balkan and Afrobeat. The instrumentation is a sort of way of stripping the music back so it focuses on the elements that really speak to the listener – in this case I think its the interactions and conversations that happen in the band, within the music. Nick and Jeremy have a really unique and engaging way of playing together. Over time the group has come to include more influences as we travel around and hear music from around the world.

What do you think of the collaboration with Lionel Loueke?

I love this record so much! It’s on a pretty regular rotation for me. I’ve been a fan of Lionel since high school, hearing him on records with Terence Blanchard, Gretchen Parlato and Walter Smith III, as well as his own stuff. He was a big reason I wanted to pursue the Monk Institute since he was a member of the ensemble in the early 2000s. Adding guitar to a chord-less group has the potential to completely change the dynamic of the group but Lionel’s approach is so unique that it only enhances the freedom the group already enjoys. His music is so joyful and his personality I think can really be heard by the listener. The guys in the band did such a great job of writing music to really bring Lionel into the group so he’s a fifth member as opposed to just a guest. I would have loved to be present in the studio just to watch the magic happen!

The band is gaining momentum at an international level, but at the same time, so are you, starting with your experience at the Thelonious Monk Institute; how has that been?

My experience at the Monk Institute was truly incredible and hard to put into words. The way it works is that a panel of jazz legends (Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Heath, James Newton and Kenny Burrell) choose a band to work together for two years, while each member is earning a masters degree at the same time. My group ran from 2014-2016, during which time we performed hundreds of shows, clinics, and festivals, but also studied with some of the greatest musicians alive. A highlight was definitely performing in Morocco with Herbie and Dee Dee Bridgewater after International Jazz Day in Paris, 2015. Being on stage overlooking an ancient Moroccan castle playing ‘Actual Proof’ with Herbie himself is an unforgettable experience. He never holds back! We also performed with Herbie and Wayne Shorter at the Playboy Jazz Festival that year to 17000 people at the Hollywood Bowl.

Wayne and Herbie wanted to play all our music too. Wayne was pretty adamant about that. My last highlight, because I can’t leave this out, would have to be playing at the White House for Michelle and President Obama. I have the photo with them to prove it! It was definitely a challenging experience at times too. Being around all your musical heroes, you need to be on your game all the time – they expect greatness. Herbie and Wayne would often speak to us about how your music is informed by who you are and how you choose to go through life. Strive to be a better human, and you as a musician will follow. Many of these lessons I feel I’ve only started to learn in the (almost) two years since finishing at the Institute.

You’ve performed with some of the most significant living legends of jazz; what’s it like, meeting your heroes?

Meeting somebody like Wayne Shorter is hilarious because he’s so serious about the music but loves to joke around too. It’s all through his music, these little jokes. Sometimes our lessons would be watching a sci-fi movie and he would quote funny little lines of dialogue. It’s interesting having these real world experiences with legendary figures of modern music. They’re real people, but highly creative and free from many of the restraints we often put on ourselves. Another great thing about being in the Monk Institute band was that all the artists they would bring in to work with us would hang with us for a week at a time, so we would spend plenty of time sharing meals, going out to see music, or just chatting. We worked with so many great musicians, too many to name, but some highlights for me were John Patitucci, Robert Hurst (of course, bass players), Chris Potter, Danilo Perez, Stefon Harris, Jimmy Heath, Hal Crook, Terri Lynn Carrington and Lewis Nash. They all had so much to share with us.

If you could play with anyone (no restrictions whatsoever) who would that be?

Tough question! Living or dead? Sometimes I think about major musical events I would have loved to be at. I think playing onstage with Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock would be one of those. I would have loved to play with Miles Davis. So much of Herbie and Wayne’s musical personality come from the way Miles guided them. As for living, playing in Wayne’s quartet with Danilo Perez and Brian Blade would be a dream come true for me.

Do you see yourself as an ambassador of Australian Jazz?

I do see myself as an ambassador of sorts. People often ask me about Australian Jazz and are genuinely curious about what the scene is like there. I think it’s an interesting time because with YouTube and the accessibility of music everywhere, you can be in rural Australia somewhere and still listen to and watch all the same stuff as a musician in NYC. The difference is seeing music live, and interacting with musicians you aspire to play with. Los Angeles and New York are just so densely saturated with incredible musicians that you can go out any night of the week and see people play in a small venue that you would only see at a festival or larger venue in Australia.

What does the term ‘Australian Jazz’ mean to you?

I hate to lump all the different musicians making varying types of music into the term ‘Australian Jazz’, but if I could make one observation it might be that I think Australian musicians make music with a particular honesty and sincerity. This translates well overseas too which is why you see such a high number of Australian artists doing well all over the world.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

I would love to be able to sustain a performing and recording career between Australia and the US, and Europe also. Obviously the distance is a challenge, but there is so much good music to be made in all these places.

How would you describe your relation to the bass?

I’ve become less concerned with myself as a bass player in recent times, instead opting to see myself as just a musician. This has in turn made me way more comfortable on the instrument and, I like to think, a better musician. I love the role of the bass in music. I think of it as the lowest voice of the counterpoint, or conversation. Sometimes the music calls for the bass to just lay a foundation, and sometimes it moves more freely into other territory. I love that experience of feeling completely inside the music at all times. The creative decisions you can make with the bass part of a song are endless. Choosing not to play can be the most exhilarating moment of a piece of music. As for the instrument itself, as any bassist can confirm, its a daily commitment. I practice a lot of different things, but really enjoy making sure I have time for some classical repertoire, to keep my hands strong on the instrument.

Which song best describes your current state of mind?

I like that tune ‘Hard Love’ on The Vampires meet Lionel Loueke.

It just sort of cruises along at this medium pace but takes in all this stuff along the way. At the end of the day, it has a generally positive outcome, but there are bumps along the road!

The Vampires on Tour

* with Ben Hauptmann guitar