Jason Bruer: ‘Hammerhead is without doubt my muse’

Jason Bruer is back – not that he was ever away. One of the staples of the Sydney jazz scene, the restless saxophonist has been involved in a series of ensembles, and has been leading a few bands of his own, covering a vast range of styles, from soul-jazz to all shades of bop. Now he has a new album out, Turning Point, with his Hammerhead band. So the opening sentence of this interview should be ‘Hammerhead is back’ – playing some wonderful new tunes by Jason Bruer.
What is the backstory of Turning Point?
Probably about three-four years ago I set about challenging myself in terms of my writing which in part was a result of starting a Masters degree in Composition. Using Hammerhead as a vehicle for the creative component of the course, I set about working hard on some areas of composition that I hadn’t really explored at that stage. Odd meter, through composition, chamber jazz, and counterpoint within the horns and the rhythm section were all of interest to me to incorporate in my music. It was at this stage that I made the conscious decision to make Hammerhead an all-original project. Hence the name Turning Point.
How different is it to Mozaic?
As a result of concentrating on my original music and a more contemporary approach thereof, I realised I had to make some changes in the band to facilitate the shift in direction. I replaced the drummer, bass player and trumpet player from the line up and had already replaced the pianist after recording Mozaic. The music on Mozaic is very much a ‘nod’ to the pioneers of the hard bop movement and whilst there are a few of my original tunes on the CD, and one from my Brother Tim, the overall flavour of the music was very much a continuum of the post bop style.
There are a lot of elements from different jazz styles in the album; was this deliberate?
One of the reasons for doing a Masters was to develop my writing skills – I really wanted to expand the overall palette of composition and be bolder in my approach and also to incorporate disparate influences that have come from a 40 year career playing a lot of styles. I attribute of a lot of the inspiration behind some of the writing to listening in depth to Barney McAll. Whilst I didn’t try and copy him, just listening to his music is always a constant source of inspiration. As part of my masters, I did a research project on Barney’s disparate influences in composition. Essentially I did a case study in the integration of influences in jazz composition using his CD Mooroolbark.
Would you describe yourself as a composer or a performer first? How do these two sides of you affect one another?
Certainly historically, I would definitely consider myself a performer first but I take my writing very seriously; it is something I enjoy doing and it is becoming a bigger part of my creative practice these days. Since the early ’90s I have always had a project that I have either contributed compositions to or written all the music thereof
How would you describe Hammerhead, as a band?
Hammerhead is now very much about my personal endeavors as a band leader and composer. It is without doubt my muse. My other projects – Soul Roots Revival Band, JB3 etc – are more about fulfilling my musical cravings in terms of playing certain styles; I have played in a lot of soul and funk and pop bands over the years, and love those styles. Typically, I don’t wait to be asked to join a band that plays a style that I am interested in – I just put one together myself. It’s extremely hard work keeping it all going but very rewarding at the same time. JB3 is my latest project which is still to really get off the ground as it were, as I have been extremely busy promoting Turning Point. Exploring the organ trio sound is something I have flirted with over the years but never truly committed to. Teaming up with Steve Barry on this project is very exciting… Watch this space.
What does each of the other band members bring to the overall sound?
I guess everyone in the band contributes something unique to the music which is what I’m always looking for in the musicians I choose to be on my band. There are a lot of considerations when choosing each member. Often players with incredible musicianship get overlooked due to a variety of issues: reliability, versatility, the ability to get on etc. The bottom line is ability and personality.
Greg Coffin is a pianist that I have worked with on and off since returning to Australia in 2006. He is a truly world class player and someone I get along with very well and have always looked up to. He is also versatile and easy company and also a great composer in his own right so he is great to have in the band.
Brendan Clarke is one of the finest bass players in the country. He would be in anyone’s top ten bass players in Australia. Incredibly gifted, great sound, incredible reader, very versatile and a great guy to hang out with.
Andrew Robertson is the only guy who has been in the band since it started. He’s a great guy and an incredible professional. Whilst his style is probably more akin to the first incarnation of Hammerhead, he is also very versatile and always a great source of encouragement and inspiration as a fellow saxophonist. Also a really good flute player which gives me options when writing for horns.
Cam McAllister, a great composer and arranger in his own right is a very fine trumpet player whose style fits the band very well. He’s a good mate and great to have in the band.
Simon Ferenci has been on the periphery of the band for some years now and has done a number of tours and gigs when Cam’s navy band commitments get in the way. Along with Cam, [he is] one of my two favourite trumpet players in Sydney. I decided that I just had to have him on the CD also, so we agreed they would share the trumpet chair for this recording.
Alex Hirlian brings the youth factor; in my opinion, he is the finest young drummer in the Country. He won Wangaratta jazz drums competition last year for very good reason. He makes great contributions musically and he is fearless.
What are you looking for, in a musical collaboration?
Essentially collaborating with any other musician has to stem from the love of the music foremost. In the jazz world, it is rare that musicians collaborate for any sort of remuneration incentive, so it boils down to primarily the music. Even though I write and arrange all the music, having regular band members contributions when we rehearse and refine material is very helpful for all the aforementioned reasons and it is another reason as to why they are in the band.
How did you develop your sound?
The overall band sound is not something I think about a great deal really; having said that, the musicians I choose to work with all provide a unique sound and I guess that is one of the reasons I am attracted to their playing. I think the band’s sound is fairly typical of a current modern jazz sextet, whatever that is! Personally I have devoted an enormous amount of time to my own sound over the years and I still work on the breath and the control thereof. I listen to myself and find it hard to hear anyone particular but have been influenced by the Trane, Shorter, Henderson and Brecker; they would probably be the main players I feel have helped shape my sound. I always try and sound as authentic as I can to the style of music I am playing without trying to mimic. I find it very hard to be impartial about my own sound and playing. I am always critical of my own sound and playing and always feel I need to work harder on a lot of aspects of it. I guess I have to have more faith in my own creative practice and playing. It’s a constantly evolving thing.
What does ‘jazz’ mean to you?
Jazz means a lot and very little to me. It’s a label to describe a plethora of music. My daughter used ‘jazz’ to describe my Soul / Roots band the other day. I was puzzled and said why do you think it’s jazz, she said because it has sax in it! Some people describe the music of Kenny G as jazz! It certainly isn’t the way I would describe it. Then again the way I would describe his music is probably not publishable!
I guess if I had to nail it, I would say jazz to me has more cultural connotations and and whilst its roots are firmly planted in the turn of the 20th century black American culture, it has evolved considerably and now is just an umbrella term to describe a broad church of styles. I would also describe it as ‘free’ in as much as it has no boundaries or rules and that’s why it is so intoxicating.
Which tune best describes your current state of mind?
This is a hard question to answer. The state of my mind [at the moment] is a cluttered mess. I’m not sure there is a single tune on the CD that describes the way my mind is now but to answer the question more broadly and in a way that reflects my musical state of mind, I would say ‘Veritable Madness’, not only the fractured nature of the melody but the name itself very much resonates with me presently.

Jason Bruer and Hammerhead are playing at the Marrickville Festival, on Sunday 20 October