Jack Earle: ‘Nothing beats that brilliant big band sound’

Whether he’s playing with his crisp-sounding trio or leading his well-oiled machine of a big band, Jack Earle is a spectacular musician, a dazzling pianist and a dashing performer, his wicked sense of humour balanced by a romantic sensitivity. Which is probably why he’s paired so well with an ever greater stage dazzler, musical theatre legend Rhonda Burchmore. In the past few years the two of them have established a wonderful ‘genius-and-the-goddess’ type of working relationship, and their unique chemistry has offered immense delight to audiences in various situations. Now they are working together on another project, Queens of the Jazz Age, presented at the Stonnington Jazz Festival, featuring three more flamboyant performers, Dolly Diamond, Cougar Morrison and Stella Angelico. Here’s what the bandleader had to say about it, a couple of nights before the show.

What is ‘Queens of the Jazz Age’?

Queens of the Jazz Age is a 60 minute powerhouse show featuring four magnificent vocalists, a 17 piece big band, and hosted by the incredible Rhonda Burchmore. The concert includes a truly diverse range of talent, with Stella Angelico, Dolly Diamond, and Cougar Morrison on the bill.

It’s an evening of true showbiz glamour, Hollywood pizazz, with a nod to the age of swing and big band music. We’ll be featuring some classics by Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone, Peggy Lee and some more modern artists like Bette Middler and Tom Jones.

It will be impossible to come to this show and not be entertained, there’ll be a little something for everyone.

This is an enormous group effort, with many departments coming together to make the cogs turn to produce what you see on stage. Special thanks should go to Artistic Director Chelsea Wilson and the whole Stonnington Jazz team for having an unwavering vision of this show.

How did you approach the material?

This show could perhaps be considered a return to my roots in the commercial swing era music. I have many passions and I’m lucky to be involved in a project that combines a few of these – great music and great entertainment.

I grew up on a steady diet of old school big band and swing music. And pancakes (my god, I love them). This music is what I used to demand be played in the car (if it wasn’t the Wiggles). I used to play these tunes in the local community band, which inspired me to start my own big band at the age of 12.

Obviously my music tastes have matured and diversified since then, and I now try and play original music and improvised music to anyone who will listen. The big band is an outlet for my compositional tendencies, with beauty being found in what is written down, carefully rehearsed, and thrillingly performed – nothing beats that brilliant big band sound. However with smaller ensembles, most notably my trio, the focus is on improvisation and rhythmic modulations and the excitement of spontaneous music making. It’s particularly special with my trio because we’ve been playing together a long time and have started to learn how to read each other’s minds musically. We push each other to challenge ourselves and break boundaries in our playing individually and collectively.

There is also my work in theatre. Ever since I can remember I’ve been obsessed with putting on a show. I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in many musicals over the years and hope for that to continue. I think there will certainly be an element of the theatrical in Queens of the Jazz Age.

How would you describe your rapport with Rhonda Burchmore?

Rhonda is the best. We have a great working relationship and friendship, and I think the best thing is seeing her in her element on stage. She has the audience in the palm of her hand – it’s truly magical. I often have to pinch myself to come back down to earth when she sings a ballad – it’s one of the most special pleasures to play ballads as a duet with her.

There are often tears of laughter, and there are strong elements of mischief. It makes long plane rides, long car trips and stressful technical issues far more bearable. You’d be a prize fool not to come see her in action of Saturday.

If you could invite anyone to join the band, who would that be?

It is no secret that my musical idols are Harry Connick Jr and Chick Corea – obviously there’s some quite different musical reasons for idolising each one. But I would give organs of my own body to create music with those guys.

However, while I’m sure the music would be incredible (like… what would you even do if you turned up on Saturday and Chick Corea was at the piano?) I’m not sure that it’s quite in keeping with the theme Queens of the Jazz Age.

Bearing that in mind, and considering you haven’t specified living or dead, it’s hard to look past Ella Fitzgerald.

How ‘jazz’ is this project?

Defining jazz is hard; it’s like asking one to define existence. But I’ll give it a go.

A crucial element of Jazz to me is that it contains real-time music making – improvisation. A “classical” composer could deliberate over one minute of music for hours, days, weeks or months. A Jazz musician would make one minute of music in one minute. However, improvisation is not as present in Big Band music. It obviously contains improvisation, but it is not the sole purpose of the music existing. I know many people that would argue that Big Band music is not Jazz. I disagree; but if Jazz is about improvisation then Big Band music kinda ruins that definition.

So I like to think of it more as an approach to how I make music. Jazz is a way of defining particular harmonies, rhythms and melodies. It’s such a wonderful mixture of influences, musically, culturally, spiritually and historically, that it’s almost too big a concept to put into a definition. But if we try, maybe we could define it as: a way of thinking about music.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

My mind is constantly awash with music, and more often than not it’s stupid songs like YMCA or The Ants Go Marching One By One that pop into my head at inopportune moments and get stuck there. So I really wish I had some brilliant artistic answer for this but I really don’t. But at the time of writing it’s very late, and I’m very tired, and this is when the sombre songs kick in. There’s a great live version of Fred Hersch playing Joni Mitchell’s beautiful Both Sides Now.

It’s beautiful, maybe that can describe my mind for a bit.

Stonnington Jazz presents Queens of the Jazz Age at Chapel Off Chapel on Saturday 18 May at 2pm and 8.30pm.