Tim Nikolsky: Getting Real Down Under
AAJ: Do you think the use of American Real Books in educational settings has been detrimental to the development of Australian jazz at all?
TN: That's a really big question. At the Thailand International Jazz Conference '11, I was talking to [guitarist] Kurt Rosenwinkel's manager, Ander Chan-Tidemann, and he described American musicians coming to Denmark in the '80s and collaborating with local musicians like [bassist] Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and guys like that, and he said it was a little bit of a double-edged sword because, whilst the Americans brought a great sense of discipline regarding time and rhythmand also an immense vocabulary of jazz phrasing, of jazz languageand the Danish, Swedish and Norwegian jazz musicians were able to collaborate with these fantastic jazz musicians regularly, he felt that that somehow along the way their original sound was diluted. Relating that back to Australian jazz, I think that's quite possible as well. You have to look at educational practice and the use of Real Books in education as a way of learning tunes and vocabulary, and learning commonly known tunes so that musicians can get together and play, but this has to be balanced with developing your own approach and your own voice.
There's a college here in Melbourne, called the Victorian College of the Arts, and their approach to jazz education has predominantly not been about learning for instance, tunes, scales, the fundamentals of music, but much more about developing your voice and what have you got to say. I think that, over the years, this has proved to have developed quite a lot of unique voices in Australian jazz and they would not have used Real Books as extensively there as they would have in other places. They're much more about writing tunes and group improvisation and those sorts of things.
AAJ: Who could you name that has come through this college that is deserving of attention?
TN: There's Steve Magnusson, a guitarist. He has a really unique voice and that's quite difficult on guitar, because there have been so many innovators and it's such a widely played instrument, so it's hard to develop a unique voice, particularly in jazz where there are so many well-trodden paths, like the Wes Montgomery approach, or the Pat Metheny style. Steve is definitely about doing his own thing. There are many others that have come through the VCA, [pianist] Barney McAll being another who has developed a unique voice and is an amazing composer.
AAJ: How supportive of your idea for an Australian Jazz Real Book have Australian jazz musicians been?
TN: The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. It's the main thing which has sustained my efforts to continually work at it because without their support I don't think it would have been done. I have to admit that it's a thrill for me that I can call up my peers, people that I respect deeply, and talk to them about tunes or whatever, and this has really propelled me in working on the project and getting it done. There has been a lot of really positive encouragement. There has also been tremendous recognition of the Australian jazz sound, of what has come before.
An Australian Jazz Real Book was attempted in the early to mid-eighties, but the project didn't get off the ground because they ran out of funding. Part of the study that I've been involved in has been to try and track down those efforts and figure out where they got up to but a lot of the material was lost. Their approach was a little bit different actually; what they did essentially was have a committee decide on tunes, and they collected tunes from Australian jazz musicians at the time, they wrote them up in standard form, they left the title off the lead sheets and the dubbed tapes of the heads of each tune and they sent them to this committee, which would vote on a tune's merit and appropriateness for a Real Book. This was their way of making it a bit more impartial.
AAJ: Like a blindfold test.
TN: Exactly right.
AAJ: To what extent has this book been shaped by the feedback from the musicians whose opinions you asked for?
TN: It has been mostly created from the input of Australian jazz musicians. My approach has taken a leaf out of Chuck Sher's New Real Book Volume 1, whose title, Created by musicians for musicians, really set out a way of doing things for me. Firstly, I tried to get the opinions of the Australian jazz community as a whole by doing a web survey and using the answers as a set of prescriptions for creating a draft Real Book. I then interviewed key musicians in Australian jazz, across performance and education and used their feedback to fine tune the draft Real Book. Their opinions carried a lot of weight because they have all been involved in Australian jazz for a long time, and they are all experts in their field. I want the educators to be able to use the book with their students so I obviously have to listen to what they have to say and make changes according to what would work in an educational setting.