Hannah James: ‘The Sydney Women’s Jazz Collective is as a celebration of the many great female players out there’

Back in the day, there were really only a handful of women playing jazz in Australia: outstanding women indeed, such as Judy Bailey and Sandy Evans, but these musicians were the exception rather than the norm. In recent decades, however, the scene has been slowly and quietly changing and the number of gifted women taking up jazz has increased. And high time too. The women in Australian jazz today are talented and tenacious. A case in point is the Sydney Womens s Jazz Collective, a 10-piece band led by bassist Hannah James.

A ten-piece band is a pretty ambitious undertaking. How did you come up with the idea to form the SWJC?

SWJC was originally put together for the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival in conjunction with Sandy Evans, Ellen Kirkwood and the festival organisers. We had some great Australian composers commissioned to write for the band and received a very positive response from audiences so it seemed crazy not to continue with the project. Since then we’ve been lucky enough to work with some wonderful international artists through the festival, including Christine and Ingrid Jensen (Canada/US) and Silke Eberhardt (Germany) and we’re currently in the process of putting together another round of great local compositions for the group.

By making this an all-female band are you making a feminist statement? Do you think the jazz scene, both here and abroad, is generally supportive of women?

This is obviously very topical at the moment and there’s a big global push to address gender imbalances in the jazz scene. The Sydney scene has been very proactive in supporting Women in Jazz – just look at the Sydney Womens International Jazz Festival. Our band has been a direct beneficiary of this.

For me, SWJC can definitely be seen as a celebration of the many great female players out there on the Sydney scene and it provides a rare chance for us to get together and make music. That community is invaluable. But it’s also just a great band of good players that happen to be all female. It would be nice if that was not a remarkable fact. All the band members are actively pursuing individual careers in a tough industry (regardless of which gender you are) and it’s awesome that there are enough of us to form a band of this size with zero compromises in terms of skill and instrumentation.

How would you describe the Collective’s sound?

SWJC is a unique collective. Being a 10-piece band means we have the best of both the big and small ensembles – the excitement and force of a big band, with the flexibility and creativity of a much smaller modern ensemble. The four-piece rhythm section and six horns give the band a very rich and varied sound pallet while maintaining a high degree of intimacy and connection among members. We’re lucky to play an extremely diverse range of repertoire ranging from mainstream large ensemble jazz, to avant-garde and world music through to some of the most beautiful and daring creative art music.

You favour modern Australian compositions. How do you choose what compositions you’ll play? Have you commissioned any works for the SWJC?

Thanks to a grant through SIMA and the Australia Council, the band was lucky enough to commission a number of works early on: fantastic pieces from Australian artists Andrea Keller, Jenna Cave, Ellen Kirkwood, Glen Doig and Freya Garbett. Since then we’ve approached a number of wonderful composers who have been very generous in contributing to the ensemble repertoire and we will be introducing these new works gradually over the course of our residency at Foundry616!

In choosing repertoire we just try to find pieces and artists we enjoy listening to and that are interesting and fun to play. It’s been really exciting to see the breadth and depth of talent and diversity on the Australian scene and that is definitely something we want to embrace, support and contribute to. There’s so much great music out there and it’s really important to make sure it’s getting heard, so we support each other, get amongst it and get excited about what all these different artists and composers are producing. It’s very inspiring.

How do you see the future panning out for the SWJC?

I very much hope this will be an ensemble of long standing. It’s such a fantastic group of individuals and we work well together. It’s always exciting to play in a band of this size and with such a great repertoire. We’re looking forward to another wonderful international collaboration at this year’s Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival, so keep a lookout for that, and there are also plans for additional festival appearances and recordings in the pipeline. If you’d like to stay up to date with what’s happening with the ensemble, you can head to our Facebook page.

Members of the Sydney Womens Jazz Collective are Hannah James (double bass), Ali Foster (drums), Sorcha Alburquerque (guitar), Freyja Garbett (piano), Ellen Kirkwood (trumpet), Louise Horwood (trumpet), Alex Silver (trombone) Laura Corney (tenor), Loretta Palmeiro (alto/sop/clarinet), Kali Gillan (baritone).

The Sydney Women’s Jazz Collective will be performing at Foundry616 on Monday20 August, returning on 24 September and 22 October.