Audrey Powne: “Heckle me, I love it”

Audrey Powne is a badass. (Can I say ‘badass’? Is it okay to use words like that, within the context of a jazz website? Too late, it is already out there.) With one foot in jazz and the other in the pop/soul/funk/electro universe, the trumpetist/vocalist is one of the most fiery performers in the Melbourne music scene – and now she brings that fire at the usually quieter environment of the Melbourne Recital Centre. But don’t worry, you are still welcome to heckle her, and expect her to put you in your place – that is exactly where she wants you.

What are you going to present at the Melbourne Recital Centre?

When I was offered the opportunity to perform at the Melbourne Recital Centre, I was instantly excited at the prospect of hearing my long time collaborator and dear friend James Bowers play on the beautiful Grand Piano. I then set about choosing repertoire which would be ideal in this setting: mostly originals I wrote specifically for this quartet and some of my favourite jazz standards, including those by my favourite composer, Duke Ellington. I will be performing with Gareth Thomson on drums and Marty Holoubek on bass; along with James, they are some of my oldest friends and we’ve been playing together in so many different line ups, funk bands, big bands etc. We have done so many ‘interesting’ gigs together, it’s great to have the opportunity to perform in such a beautiful environment.

What do you expect from the audience?

I have a strong dislike for the stereotypical ‘jazz’ gig set up with dim lighting, pork pie hats, glasses of Pinot Noir, ‘shh’-ing and proclamations of “this is / isn’t jazz”. I think the sooner we lose this pretence, the better. Jazz is party music. I love raucousness and banter, heckle me, I love it. I think if we keep treating jazz gigs as almost a recreation of a stereotype, the audience comes to expect a certain type of gig: female singer in a sexy black dress, singing standards, head-solos-head, and so on; that can be great, but I think the audience that wants that stereotypical jazz gig is maybe going to see jazz as if it is a stagnant art form. Women don’t dress like that anymore day-to-day, and Jazz music has evolved and so I think the environment it’s performed in should evolve with it. Long story short, I want the audience to feel relaxed like it’s a party and just listen to the music without feeling the pressure to get it or judge whether it is acceptable or not.

What is the best part about performing live?

Sharing the experience with my friends. I am so privileged to have grown up with incredible musician peers (ie: the musicians I am sharing this gig with) and after years of playing together, we have forged a connection which cannot be manufactured. I love when things go wrong, you lose the form, or when things take an unexpected turn, someone takes their solo in a direction you’re all forced to follow. I love that, that’s when the fun starts and I love playing with musicians who take risks. My favourite music (especially swing) exists where the band is on the edge of falling apart or going for things that then they have to navigate a way out of. When you play with people you trust musically, this isn’t scary, it’s exciting and brings out the best in you as a musician and improviser.

You are active in jazz and other genres; how different is your approach to each?

Honestly my approach isn’t that different. It used to be. I am very active in the Melbourne soul scene as lead singer and trumpeter for The Do Yo Thangs and Au Dre, my 80s funk duo project with James Bowers. I used to treat my jazz gigs as more serious. I’d get dressed up and curl my hair and the guys would wear collared shirts. Musically I would go in with the mindset “I have to prove I can play, prove I can cut it with the boys,” which would ultimately lead to me playing things that were meaningless and boring. Playing pop music helped me learn that all music is valid and challenging if you go into it with the mindset of creating something that expresses something about who you are at that particular point in time.

Why did you choose the trumpet?

You do not choose the Trumpet, the Trumpet chooses you! I picked it up at school and I just loved it instantly. Later on, at university, my love definitely wavered; it’s so hard and so frustratingly inaccurate compared to a guitar or piano; playing in a different key is an entirely different world on Trumpet, so you really have to learn to play everything 12 times. BUT then I listen to Lee Morgan and remember that’s why I love Trumpet. The best thing about Trumpet is its malleability in terms of texture and tone and I am always trying to explore ways to utilise this.

Who are your heroes?

Having jazz heroes can be problematic, especially if you end up meeting them. I have some big influences, for sure: Roy Hargrove, Clifford Brown, Ambrose Akinmusire, Joe Henderson, but I don’t really see them as my heroes as much as teachers. My heroes are all local, musicians I have looked up to and emulated. Trombonist Shannon Barnett has had the most significant influence on me as a hero-like figure. She’s one of my favourite players of any instrument – period – but she was also the first player I could see myself in. In a simplistic way that she played brass and was female, but in a more nuanced sense regardless of instrument and gender, she was fun and quirky and full of life and she played with real personality. I saw that and thought that is what I want to do.

How did you get into jazz?

When I was a kid, my mum and I used to watch all the old MGM musicals so much that I didn’t realise they weren’t current and most of the actors were dead. But I absorbed the music and listened to it constantly, so was introduced to jazz standards almost accidentally from a very young age. I loved Frank Sinatra as a kid and the film ‘High Society’ was a huge obsession for me at a very young age; I wasn’t sure what I liked about it, but I remember being obsessed with the scene where Louis Armstrong sings ‘Now You Has Jazz’ with Bing Crosby and rewinding the VHS to watch it over and over again and dance.

Then when I started playing Trumpet and teachers were giving me Gershwin and Cole Porter songs to play, I was like: “I know this, I know all of this music, this is what I love.”

What does jazz mean to you?

There is a cultural significance in America to jazz which I do not fully understand and cannot speak to except to say I acknowledge it and acknowledge that it is not my story. Jazz to me has always meant a particular type of music which embodies freedom and fluidity. All the music I adore uses harmonic and rhythmic language which has very strong origins in jazz, particularly regarding time feel. I have always been drawn to music which grooves and this I think all comes from jazz. The feeling I get listening to Philly Joe Jones play drums is the same feeling I get listening to D’Angelo; you feel it in your guts.

What is your greatest aspiration?

To be myself and make music that means something to me and the people I’m making it with; not to try and please external entities. As I get older, I am learning that no amount of success can equal the feeling of being your authentic self and expressing that; that is fulfilling; chasing adoration and success is crushing and empty.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

‘Look for the Silver Lining’.

The Audrey Powne Quartet plays at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Friday 13 April.