Ross McHenry: “The Outsiders is an embrace of my Adelaideness”

Ross McHenry‘s trio with Matthew Sheens and Myele Manzanza is outstanding, not only because it consists of three great artists, but also because it is both international (a drummer from New Zealand, a pianist based in New York, a bassist from South Australia) and small-town (both Sheens and McHenry are from Adelaide and Manzanza is from Wellington). This is not lost on the trio’s leader, who created a set of compositions based on this fact, describing thing from the perspective of the Outsiders. As the trio sets to present this new music, Ross McHenry sheds light to all aspects of its creation.

What is the Outsiders’ backstory?

The body of work that makes up ‘The Outsiders’ came about following a recording session that was largely a chance meeting.

Matthew and I have known each other for a long time; we studied our undergraduate degrees at Adelaide University together and played reasonably regularly during that time. Matt is a remarkable musician; he was always the brightest, most intuitive, most inventive and brilliant musician in the room at university and since moving to the US his sound and concept have continued to develop and mature into something I think is very special. On a side note, his new album ‘American Counterpoint’ is a masterpiece and your readers would do well to look out for it when its released later this year.

Myele is also a wonderful and unique musician. We first met at the Red Bull Music Academy in London in 2010. Our relationship was forged through a mutual love of electronic music and hip-hop, but our formative backgrounds were in jazz, even though at the time we were both pursuing other areas of music. Myele brings a deep and intuitive understanding of many styles of music to his playing. He always approaches jazz improvisation in a way that serves the composition first. His creative expression always comes from the core of the groove and the core of the composition, which as a composer and bassist I love.

Until 2015 my relationships with both musicians were rooted in quite different circles of both my musical and social life. However, in 2015 Myele was performing at the WOMADelaide festival and fortuitously Matthew was in Adelaide visiting family at the same time. On a whim, I found a free day in al our schedules and booked a studio just to see what would happen. I had a bunch of tunes I was working on for what would become the ‘Child of Somebody’ album that I brought to the session because they didnt really fit the aesthetic I was going for with the larger ensemble project.

Playing together with both Matt and Myele, well, it was a really effortless experience and I felt in that session that I rediscovered a part of myself I had lost. I’d spent the previous five or so years working on large ensemble projects both with my solo work and with Shaolin Afronauts, and it was refreshing to experience the freedom the trio setting offered to me as a bass player. It was a bit of a wake up call for me too, as I had just recovered from some debilitating repetitive strain injury which took me out of practicing and playing intensively for about four years. In some ways, this session threw down the gauntlet for me to get back on the path to being the bass player I want to be and also reminded me how much I love small group jazz – and particularly piano trio jazz. Since then I’ve been writing a lot for trio and I’ve pursued every opportunity for this trio to play and record. Which is how this album has come about.

What did Myele Manzanza and Matthew Sheens each bring to the equation?

They both bring themselves! Unreservedly, unapologetically, themselves; which is what you want in a piano trio. On top of that, they bring that without any judgment, so you never feel like you’re in the jazz Olympics, just that you’re all trying to support each other to serve the compositions. In a piano trio there’s nowhere to hide for anyone – all weaknesses are exposed and so you need to feel like you are in it together. I chose them because they’re a great team, one that always brings everything they have to every musical moment and I know that they support me to develop as a musician and composer without judgment. This album was the first thing that we all did together, so parts of it are pretty raw but I think that, in all bringing ourselves unapologetically, we made something honest and Im proud of that. Now we have the rest of our lives to refine it!

How would you describe the main concept of the album?

The idea behind ‘The Outsiders’ is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time without really knowing what it was that I was thinking about. I’ve always had a deep and resounding love of American jazz. The music I’ve written, even though heavily influenced by this love, does not sound like American jazz; even when I’ve worked with American musicians and even when I tried to make it sound this way. This is in part because I have much learning, practicing and study to do before I can come close to the brilliance of my idols. But it is also, perhaps more importantly, at least from the perspective of my writing, to some degree because I am not part of an American scene. Similarly, my music also does not sound like Melbourne jazz; not because I am not influenced by the many truly exceptional musicians in that scene, or because I do not ever work with musicians from Melbourne; again it is because I am not part of that scene.

What I have realised is that my music, when it is at its best, sounds like me and it sounds like someone who has not grown up in a major centre like Melbourne, or New York, or London. For a long time I was ashamed of this. But I have begun to realise this is also what makes my music worth listening to; its a part of what makes it unique. Matt is also from Adelaide (although he’s been living in NY for many years) and Myele comes from Wellington in NZ (which is even smaller and more isolated than Adelaide, where I am from). All three of us are coming from the outside of the centre of the worlds we love, participate in and contribute to. The Outsiders is my reflection on all of this. It’s an embrace of what I was once ashamed of, my Adelaideness, and it’s a way forward for me, not to write from the perspective of an outsider or someone from South Australia, but rather to accept who I am in the hope of writing music that genuinely represents the way I see the world. It’s also an acknowledgement that perhaps in the past I have tried too hard to make music that tries to sound like something I can never truly own and signals that my intent is to write from here on in a way that is undeniable to me.

I do not try to force these musings directly into music, nor to represent through performance these ideas in a direct sense. I have moved away from the practice of calling a song after certain things with the hope of making a point (although I have certainly done that in the past, in retrospect quite unsuccessfully). For me now, it’s more that the process of writing music helps me to better understand how I actually feel about certain things. The writing process actually informs my perspective and helps bring certain ideas to light. This was the case with ‘The Outsiders’, it wasn’t until it was completed that I had a firm idea of what the album represented to me. For the most part, my music represents my emotional response to the world around me and not my direct political persuasions (although these two things are intrinsically aligned). For example, I remember feeling devastated by the execution of Myuran Sukamarun. I remember when the Bali 9 were sentenced I did not pay special attention. I really started following the story close to the end of his life, through my love of Ben Quilty’s work and by following Ben Quilty on Facebook. Myuran’s artwork, communicated via Quilty was really what connected me with his story and when he was executed I was really overwhelmed by the futility of his death, particularly as the nature of his life was one of inspiring redemption and artistic purpose. The music I wrote was not a tribute, nor a comment on the Indonesian justice system, or the diplomatic failures of the Abbott government; the work was an emotional response to my personal interaction with Myuran’s story and his artwork. Writing the music helped me to understand and come to terms with the situation with a personal resolution to be more empathetic and to be better myself, like Myuran clearly demonstrated with his own life. A lot of my music is like this; it comes from trying to represent my emotional responses as accurately as possible, not always from a desire, at least in my current work, to state my position on anything.

You mention in the media release that this work was a musical approach to “Australia’s rich sense of borrowed cultural heritage, political misgivings, innate persona”. Can you elaborate?

A full answer to this would be a thesis or at least a lengthy interview on just this subject! Australia is a complicated country and I think when we write music we can only write from the point of view of our own experience. In the case of ‘The Outsiders’,my comment is really that as Australians we do have a rich shared cultural heritage from which to draw and that we need to be true to where we are from, whether reacting with or against the implications of this, to create work that says anything worthwhile. I have met many Australian artists who do not share this view for many reasons – too numerous to outline or rebut here. But after much thought, my perspective is that if we deny our personal and geographic identity, or whatever version of this is true for each of us, then our artwork is disingenuous as a result. I know mine was when, in the past, I tried to write from a perspective that was not my own, that is one that tried to rehash American music to a tee. Through this, I have come to believe that all great art can be located by some kind of geographic reference point, even if it transcends and crosses boundaries and borders (as all great art inevitably does). As artists, I believe we have a responsibility to try to understand the past and reflect on the present. In this country, that means for many of us confronting the Australian identity for better or worse, and generally trying to know and understand as much history as is possible so we can form our own perspectives on what the culture of this nation really is, or whatever that may be for each of us. I’d be careful to make sure here that what I’m saying is not confused with a naive sense of nationalism. That’s not what I’m suggesting at all, especially at this moment where I believe that populist nationalism can be very dangerous and in fact in total opposition to what I’m trying to achieve. However, I do believe a sense of the nation is necessary in order to reflect on our place in the world and in order for that to be possible we also need a sense of solidarity that I believe in this country we have lost sight of to some degree. As I mentioned, I do not try to force the square peg of ideology or politics through the round hole of music. Rather, music is how I understand and make sense of the world and the writing process helps me understand on an emotional level the way I feel about certain things and so naturally those things find their way into the music. Strangely, a feeling that is completely unresolved can be resolved perfectly in music simply by representing it honestly. Whereas if one tries to put an unresolved, or un-fully formed feeling or idea into words in any other public forum (even if just to try to understand it better or gain feedback) one is likely to be labelled a fool, or written off as ignorant. It is not, sadly in these times, enough to say: I am not sure, or I feel conflicted, or I don’t have the whole answer right now. However in music one is free to just represent how one feels by writing with a sense of complete emotional honesty and that is enough or at least enough in that moment. We expect musical concepts to evolve and become clearer over time, and so we accept the un-fully formed as a down payment on a grander future refinement. In many cases, in retrospect we prefer the unpolished because it connects with a part of ourselves that is also seeking meaning, without having all the answers. In public life, we don’t often allow the same freedom to evolve with respect to thought and comment by other means. Often the complete sense of what a body of art is to me, is formed in retrospect by reflecting on all of these things; this was the case with ‘The Outsiders’. There is an essay, which makes up the liner notes of the album that you can read on my blog, which tries to sum up ‘The Outsiders’ and what it means to me more fully than I have achieved here. If what I have said here makes any sense at all and youre interested, I’d suggest you read that!

Ηοw political is this work?

All music is political because all music represents the way a person sees the world, informed by their morals, their upbringing, their family and their experiences. Just as these things inform the way a person votes or the things they think and do, they also inform the way a person makes music and the perspective they bring to it.

My music helps me to make sense of the world around me and helps me to crystallise my ideas (along with other things like reading, writing, listening and conversing) and I hope that this helps me to be a better more engaged, empathetic person and citizen.

These days I hope above all else, my music gives me a way to connect with others in a genuine way. In the past, I have been unwilling to engage in discourse with people who do not share my views. For example, for a long time if anyone told me that they voted for One Nation I would presume that our differences made any constructive discourse with them close to impossible. I would go into battle with a One Nation voter, with the sole purpose of trying to get them to either admit fault, or demonstrate that I was morally or intellectually superior – a deeply arrogant, often self-ingratiating, and completely unhelpful approach, which at best is a sure-fire way to achieve nothing and at worst is a sure-fire way to drive us, as a society, further apart. In a similar way to this, I used to hope that my music could change the world through brute force; in other words, by forcing my own perspective onto the world. I was unwilling to try to understand others I though that as a progressive I was right by default. But in doing this, I existed in an echo chamber, which I still do to some degree. Music is a wonderful thing that brings people together to share something on an emotional level. Presently I hope that by doing this, and by representing the way I see the world, without the presumption of moral authority, I may do some good. At worst I know that making music makes me a better, more empathetic person and who knows, perhaps that’s political enough.

How does this project fit in with your other musical ventures?

That is a hard question to answer. There are many parts to my musical personality; they all coexist happily as far as I know, but I don’t know how it all fits together! My musical upbringing was diverse and my musical tastes are also diverse. My love of piano jazz, electric jazz, afrobeat, soul, folk, minimalism, chamber music and many other genres are things I intend to pursue because I love them. I don’t know how they all fit together, they just do.

What is your perception of “Australian” jazz?

I don’t know! It’s so incredibly diverse that its hard to make any kind of categorical statement. What I will say is that I’m truly humbled by the depth and quality of the current scene, there are so many artists out there doing their thing that add to my resolve to be better than I am everyday to try and honour their work by striving to be as good and as consistent as them. There are simply so many great artists whose work is truly unique and thus truly Australian by definition. As to what its traits are I am not concerned by these things so much as whether the music itself makes me feel like I am connected to a place.

Who are your heroes?

I don’t even know where to start! There are so many! I think the jazz artists I have listened to most consistently for the last couple of years are Brad Mehldau and Ambrose Akinmusire. My all-time favourites are probably Jaco and Herbie; they were certainly the artists who set me out on my path.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

‘Maurice and Michael (sorry I didn’t say hello)’ from Ambrose Akinmusire’s ‘A rift in the decorum’. Incredible album, I really love it – it’s jazz that makes me feel something strongly on an emotional level.

I also keep coming back to Sufjan Stevens’ album Carrie and Lowell, which I think is his best work and in many ways represents the kind of honesty I hope to achieve in my music.

Ross McHenry presents ‘The Outsiders’