“ My study of pre-composed orchestral material is teaching me more about improvising than any study I've done of improvisors... ”
- Eugene Ball , trumpet
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- Melbourne International Jazz Festival
- Bar me, the Excelsior and the new-look Side-on Cafe in Sydney
- Australian Jazz Korner : Check out this fantastic AAJ discussion thread, started by Kenny Weir and constantly being updated with information about what's happening with Australian jazz.
Eugene Ball is a Melbourne-based trumpeter. With Steve Magnusson (guitar) and Sergio Beresovsky (drums) Ball has recently released the CD Healing Songs on the Newmarket Music label. He's also gearing up for gigs with another bass-less improvising trio that is backed up by a string quartet whose members are all 'readers' and not improvisers. AAJ caught up with Ball over a flat white coffee one evening in April and found out why he chose the trumpet and what gets him excited.
AllAboutJazz: Tell us how you became a jazz musician.
Eugene Ball: I got interested in jazz when I was young teenager. My father is a jazz musician - Dennis Ball. He's a clarinetist of some repute, playing with bands such as the Yarra Yarra Jazz Band for many years. To say I grew up with music in the house is true to a certain extent. They did have rehearsals in the house and Dad took us to gigs so jazz was certainly part of life.
AAJ: Was there a particular event or concert that triggered your decision to become a musician?
EB: Yes it was, and the reason is quite perverse when I think about it. I'm the youngest of three boys and I think it would be fair to say that they beat the crap out of me often, growing up. In fact I often got into trouble for yelling when I was getting the crap beaten out of me! When I went to hear and see Dad play, the trumpet player would be the one in control of those ensembles. He counted the songs in, he made the call on what the song was going to be, introduced the song, directed who was going to solo, he was the loudest, he always played the melody, he was the guy who paid Dad at the end... so I guess in some way it was definitely a calling to find a way to be in control. Which is what I least like about the instrument now, that role of it being the most dominant and the one who controls the direction of the music as it's going.
AAJ: Do you try and change that, in the way you write for the trumpet and play it?
EB: I don't like the idea of one dominant voice too much. I don't believe that complete musical democracy works, because if nobody's going to take control then nothing happens. But the idea of a featured soloist being supported by a rhythm section, I think has served its purpose.
AAJ: So can you give me an example of how you've worked though that with some of your current or recent projects?
EB: Things like the trio with Steve [Magnusson] and Sergio [Beresovsky] - a lot of the time it's ensemble music. When solos happen there's a freedom for anyone else to play with the solo or against the solo. The music is guided by the strongest voice at the time. It doesn't have to change, but it can change at any time. Anybody can choose to be the dominant voice.
Many of the groups I play in have an emphasis on group improvisation rather than solo improvisation. The Hoodangers for instance. We do have huge bebop solos in the middle of things but the heads-in and the heads-out are extended ensemble improvisation. It's based on that role of the trumpet taking the melody, rhythm section groove, clarinet and trombone kind of supporting voices but it's moved way beyond that - it's much more a collective improvisation. I very rarely state the melody too much at all and the interweaving of the voices is equal in the parts.
EB: Yes, I like that idea of ensemble improvising. Ish Ish is another great example of where it happens all the time. The new Andrea Keller ensemble - the quartet - is also largely ensemble improvised. It's moving away from the idea of the soloist, the star, the virtuoso. I shy away from that because it's not very 'me'. Sometimes it's great to burn - to play some fast and beboppy kind of stuff and be a bit showy but the tradition of the one solo virtuoso voice supported by the others is just not my thing.
AAJ: And is it also about the structure of the ensemble - is there something about that that you want to experiment with?
EB: I'm drawn to ensembles with slightly different instrumentation. The Hoodangers is not a normal contemporary jazz instrumentation. In the trio with Steve and now Joe [Talia], by removing the bass, everybody's roles are up in the air. In challenging the roles you challenge the stereotypes as well. You have to ask yourself, "Is my job primarily melodic? Am I supposed to take 'the lead'?"
Another project I have, and it only happens occasionally is a trio with Aarron Choulai, the young pianist and Raj Jayaweera, a young drummer... again a bass-less trio and this time with a string quartet who are all readers, not improvisers. Somehow within the framework of the fully composed music that the string quartet follows is this improvisation that the trio makes.