Monique DiMattina: ‘Early Jazz is a total vibe’

In case you’re not following The Jazz Conversation, it is now uncool to like George Gershwin’s seminal Rhapsody in Blue. Monique DiMattina didn’t get the memo. The pianist, vocalist, and all-around champion of the Melbourne/ Naarm jazz community is preparing to take the stage, alongside firebrand singer Alma Zygier and an all-star band, to present the Rhapsody and a few other 1920s pop tunes at the Brunswick Ballroom. Because that’s what she does. Sorry not sorry, jazz police.

Monique DiMattina | Photo: Kevin Peterson

What would you say to a total stranger to get them to come to the Brunswick Ballroom on Sunday?

FREE DRINKS. And a chance to celebrate the music we love – not only ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ but other music from the Roaring Twenties, including works by Lil Hardin Armstrong and Dorothy Fields/Jimmy McHugh.

The pop music of the 1920s still speaks to the heart of being human in ways we can all relate to.

Also, we’re wearing fancy dress-ups with sparkles and feathers.

Why ‘Rhapsody in Blue’? Why now? 

The fact that ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ survived my introduction to it speaks to its power as an enduring cultural totem. My Mum bought me Hooked on Swing when I was 10. Note to Millenials onwards: Hooked on Swing was an ’80s compilation recording that was the musical equivalent of your favourite deli meats approximated with chemicals and processed into spam. A hideous medley of soft stringed greatest hits moments, to augment the other three vinyl records in the house. I loved it. As I grew and my tastes grew grittier there were various grown-up versions of the ‘Rhapsody’ for me to progress to. Solo piano. Full orchestral with any and every pianist. There’s a melodeon duo version on Youtube that’s rockin.

It’s fun for me to watch the various online controversies surrounding this piece now. People are cross that Rhapsody is so iconically ‘jazz’ and yet written by a white man – it doesn’t help that the bandleader of its debut concert was named ‘Paul Whiteman’. Ethan Iverson recently tore into the Rhapsody in the New York Times essentially for being a piece that doesn’t speak to the African American roots of ‘jazz’ music (whatever ‘jazz’ music is – there’s another controversy we can enjoy.)

Iverson points out it is possible to play the Rhapsody with no sense of dance beat. I’m not sure what that is supposed to prove. Any piece can be played without an exciting rhythmic momentum (ie. badly) – that’s not the fault of the piece.

Gershwin didn’t set out to write a piece that would speak for ‘jazz’ or be iconic – he pumped it out to a deadline as part of a program titled ‘An Experiment in Modern Music’. He just happened to hit on some bangin’ themes that have endured. It should be noted (as Iverson does) that when Gershwin wrote ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ in January 1924, some of the great African American originators, like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, were just getting started themselves. Gershwin was simply adding his voice to a cacophony of sound from many sources at the time. The way I see it, as a son of Jewish immigrants fleeing the pogroms in Russia, Gershwin had just as much of a ‘right’ to add to the canon as anyone else.

Iverson goes further. Like others before him, he calls the Rhapsody ‘naive and corny’ – but also a guilty pleasure like cheesecake. I reckon Iverson sounds a bit conflicted and shouldn’t judge himself or others for enjoying some simple fare.

There’s no test at the end of life – did you only drink Good Wine? Read Good Literature? Watch high-quality Scandinavian Noir?

I love ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ so I play it a lot. It’s big, it’s small, it’s rhythmic, it’s rhapsodic, the themes are catchy and silly, and people always clap really loud at the end, which is fun, I do admit.

For me the Rhapsody isn’t ‘the sound’ of America as some would say; it’s bigger than that: ‘a sound’ that speaks to humans over borders of time and place.

How does it fit in your overall body of work?

It’s a great workout, so I’ll often play it to warm up before I get to whatever else I’m working on. 

I’m more typically presenting original music, so it’s a fun diversion for me to play the Rhapsody publically, usually once a year. It also provides a context for me to play early music with others who love that style – so it becomes a shared music party.

Early jazz music doesn’t touch everyone, but for those who feel it, it’s a total vibe.

There’s also a lot of nostalgia attached to it in the Melbourne scene because those of us who play this music typically learned it from or were inspired by players that have gone to the big gig in the sky – Gil Askey, Allan Browne, the Barnard brothers, and so many others.

How did you choose the band members for this performance? 

Every one of the band members brings a loving essence to their playing that is essential to this kind of music feeling good.

Alma Zygier is channeling something bigger than all of us – her emotive range and expressive power are extraordinary.

The horn section — Brennan Hamilton-Smith (clarinet), Steve Grant (trumpet), and Ben Gillespie (trombone) — have all worked together in various combos for years and that synergy is powerful.

Sam Lemann and Simon Starr each bring a rigorousness and loving touch to the thankless task of shoveling coal in a drumless rhythm section.

They also complement one another sartorially – Simon doesn’t wear shoes and Sam wears a hat.

Monique DiMattina plays Rhapsody In Blue and other ’20s pop music with Alma Zygier and the Dopamine jazz band on Sunday 24 March at the Brunswick Ballroom