February-March 2004


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I am a communicator and my voice is my instrument of communication. —Nina Ferro

In this edition:

Check out this fantastic AAJ discussion thread, started by Kenny Weir and constantly being updated with information about what's happening with Australian jazz. And I agree totally with Kenny's enthusiasm for the Mike Nock CD. Love it!

As this Notes from Downunder is uploaded to AllAboutJazz.com, the Necks are in the middle of their latest Australian tour to promote their CD Drive By. Fans of their unique style of music are packing into venues in Australia's major cities for a fix of the Necks live experience. Meanwhile, Lloyd Swanton's other major interest, The catholics, continue to perform from time to time and Swanton's name appears in the personnel of bands playing in venues around Sydney.

Late last year, in a pub in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs, AAJ spoke with Swanton about the musician's life, The Necks, The catholics and the quest for success.

All About Jazz: When did you first decided that music was a path to follow?

Lloyd Swanton: Well in my case it wasn't actually a clear decision but the older I get the more I realise it's where I'm most comfortable - and happiest.

When I started playing bass guitar it was just something to do. I was a teenager and I don't even think I took it as far as assuming it would be a good way to pick up girls - a common explanation that people give for taking up music! It was just a hobby, I guess. My friend down the street was playing the guitar and I bought an electric bass.

AAJ: And suddenly you had a band?

LS: Mmmm sort of. We never actually performed in public. We never got to that stage. But things just happened along the way that reinforced that direction until now, after twenty or twenty-five years, I just find it inconceivable to do anything else. I'm doing what I want to do with my life and I just happen to get paid for it. That's what we're all looking for, isn't it?

AAJ: The two main projects you're involved with at the moment are The Necks and The catholics. Were both of them your idea to start with?

LS: Well the catholics for sure. With the Necks, if we want to get technical, it was me that picked up the phone and rang Chris Abrahams and asked "Do you want to put a band together?" Then we discussed drummers and called Tony [Buck]. So I made the initial phone call but I think we can comfortably say that all three of us have had the idea since!

The catholics was actually just something I wanted to do as a calling card. I was feeling totally fulfilled just playing in other people's projects but I thought it would be nice just to do one album of my own and then just go back to being a bassist with other people. Then, not only did I start to enjoy the band but it was very successful from day one.

I suppose that gets back to the question of money versus creativity or finding the true purpose of life. I guess I'm somewhere in the middle.

My instinct is to be a creative musician and make a living doing it. And I actually consider those the two criteria. While there are plenty of people that only do one or the other... their only role and purpose in life is to make a living or they're just totally into creativity and they honestly don't care if a scrap about whether they make enough to live on.

I try not to let the quest for success swamp the quest for expression. I've made a decision that any opportunities that come my way I will try to make the most of but I'm not actually going to get so much into the marketing that I end up neglecting what being a musician is all about. There are plenty of opportunities I haven't chased up but I like to think that most of the opportunities that have come my way I have at least given them a look and decided whether there was anything I could get out of it.

AAJ: If you look at The catholics and The Necks in terms of success and building a fan base, both bands have done quite well in that area. Do you think that is to do with the music or to do with some energy that you're putting in to pushing them?

LS: I really think it's both.

AAJ: I've noticed that you do actually send an email out to tell people there's a gig coming. It's really basic stuff but a lot of musicians forget.

LS: Yeah. That's an example. I think you have to do all that but if you're going to be wasting all your creative energies on plotting marketing campaigns and printing up fridge magnets then you are diverting your creative energy but also the preciousness of the creation is getting devalued.

Both bands have something different and I think then it's a question of how you present it.

The catholics are pretty candid and open. We basically just 'do what we do'. Happy, good time stuff - it's very simple. I'm amazed that more people haven't thought of doing it.

With the Necks I guess I could agree with people who say we’ve cultivated an image – more out of being very careful about where and how we're presented and actually saying no to a lot of things. We have been choosy.

AAJ: That means that the three of you in The Necks must have some idea of what's not going to work for you then, if you've got an idea of when to say "No".

LS: Well we have our instincts, we have our hunches. I would say Chris Abrahams has them in particular. I tend to get a little more excited. I will sometimes ring him, excited about an opportunity, and he'll just 'poo poo' the whole thing. Sometimes we'll disagree quite strongly but mostly I'll think about it and agree with him. We're very careful about the way the band is presented, even visually. Even the fact that we don't care what we wear on stage is actually something we are aware of...

I don't want to sound too contrived and I don't want to think about it too much either but we have managed to cultivate a bit of mystique there...

AAJ: People try to categorise The Necks – just simply in the act of writing about the band and the music that you play, words like 'new' and 'adventurous' are used and that immediately gives an impression of what the band does. How does the band feel about that sort of need to label?

LS: I think it's very understandable. For two reasons. I think it's a natural human response to want to have a frame of reference particularly for something that is kind of new. It is just some way of getting it to stand still for a moment so you can have a look at it. And I also understand from a commercial sense that records have to be placed somewhere in record shops where they can be found.

I guess it's actually the standard of perception that we're not very happy with. There are basically four similes that writers always seem to find ... I vehemently disagree with three out of the four. The only one I do agree with is the comparison to 'Can' – a progressive rock band from Germany from the seventies. I have yet to hear them but Tony [Buck] and Chris [Abrahams] have checked them out and said that there is some connection there. So that one is cool but we didn't actually copy them because we hadn't heard of them until people started telling us about them.

We are compared to the Keith Jarret Trio all the time, which is often just an example of lazy journalism. "Oh, piano bass drums... Keith Jarrett", as though nobody else has ever played in what is one of the classic instrumental combinations!

Then Dirty Three is another comparison. Presumably because they're Australian and they play instrumental and they're a trio...

The other one is Medeski, Martin and Wood. Again because it's a trio, instrumental. They seem to play four to five minute tunes but they tend to just sit on a groove, which is something like what we do but it's hardly remarkable in this day and age.

AAJ: How would you describe the music then?

LS: We should probably just call it 'Necks music'. When we got nominated for the ARIA award, in some ways I was relieved we didn’t get it. I think nominating us is about as far as we should go in terms of a category called 'jazz'. There's definitely jazz in what we do but it's moved into other areas from there. I can imagine some people would get a bit ...agitated ... if we had won it. Having said that though, the one that was nominated [the four disk live set, Homebush etc] was probably our jazziest recording. What we do as a trio on stage is still very much the same mind set as jazz. We're just exploring what we can do together and trying to take the music somewhere – it's just that the actual framework we’re using is different. So if one did win it, I think that one should be the one.

AAJ: I love the way each piece begins – waiting for one person to have an idea at the beginning of the piece, and then starting with that. Pic: Drive By

LS: It's simply practical... I'm not sure who came up with that idea. So much free improvising is defined by its starting and finishing point and yet you can improvise those as well... no-one can actually define when the improvising is going to start.

If I haven't started yet, does that mean that I haven't started yet or that I've started but I've started by not starting... if you know what I mean.

Even the most extreme improvisers will often just play on the safe side and start at the start. They won't sit out for ten minutes and then come in. And I just think that although what we do is in a way extremely rule-bound because we're always going to have just one person starting – it's also a way of clearing the static so that there's just one direction. We could have a random thing... we could just play 'rock paper scissors' before we go on stage to decide who's going to start but we prefer to wait for whoever gets an idea first.

AAJ: With The Necks and other projects are you making conscious decisions to move to the fringes and to play around outside of what people think of as being jazz?

LS: I'm coming to realisations about what it is that I really like ... and I'm making decisions to move into those areas. I'm trying to act on what I've discerned my tastes to be because everything's changing all the time.

I genuinely enjoy getting together with a couple of musicians and just playing on some standards but I also don't want to push my life in that direction. I've got other things I'm much more interested in doing. So I'm certainly not turning my back on the traditional way of playing jazz but if people want me to lay my cards on the table and say what is it that I am really into, I would say that The Necks and The catholics are very much the two things. The catholics might be candid and open but it's something that I really want to do. I was into pop music before I was into jazz and so I've always had an ear for a good dance rhythm and a catchy melody even though a lot of people who are into jazz think that that is some sort of cop out.

I like to think that The catholics have got enough credentials as jazz performers that nobody would hear them and question the quality of the music.

The Necks website: www.thenecks.com
Rufus Records website (for CDs by The catholics): www.rufusrecords.com.au
A word about the ARIA awards: www.aria.com.au class="f-right"> Back to top ^

A singer who starts her career in pop and sings her first jazz at the trad end of the spectrum might expect to have to struggle for recognition from her contemporary jazz peers. That struggle has probably been a reality more than once for Melbourne singer Nina Ferro since she started singing professionally fifteen years ago, but in an interview this week – while in the middle of launching her latest CD – Ferro admits she's reached a point on her own path where other peoples' opinions simply don't matter.

All About Jazz: How do you know when it's time to do another record?

Nina Ferro: Sometimes it just happens, almost by accident. You might just have the thought 'Hmmm I think I would like to do a new record'. If the time is right, things fall into place. You might just put it out there and say 'these are the people I'd really like to record with' and then suddenly they're all available.

I love the word 'record'. We don't use the word as much any more, but that's exactly what it is. It's a record of a moment in time, of someone's life. I think 'Crazy Way of Lovin' is the most 'me' to date. I did the one with Joe [Chindamo, 'Tender is the Night', Newmarket Music] and that was very 'me' at that time. It was the beginning of a very difficult stretch personally.

AAJ: Had the difficult stretch started when you did that recording?

NF: Oh, yes, and I can feel it when I hear the album back. It's got this tortured thing about it, which I think can be very beautiful. I'm very emotional as a person and a singer. I draw on that to create music that moves people and communicates to people.

AAJ: Who are you recording with on this new CD?

NF: Well, the line up is slightly different for most tracks. Sam Keevers on piano, about three different bass players, including Philip Rex and Rodrigo Aravena. Eugene Ball on trumpet... Most of the tracks are a ten piece band, which I love. My ultimate aim is to do an orchestral big-band album - the Nat King Cole sound. This is a little step towards that.

It happened by accident that a theme developed. I was trying to connect to the things that move me... it just turned out that the theme of it is a constant through all the songs, including the title tune 'Crazy way of Lovin'' which is one of my own.

AAJ: It's the only one of your compositions on this record?

NF: Yes, I didn't want to have too many originals on this album because I haven't done it before and I didn't want to alienate some of my audience who might find that a bit of a surprise – yet I wanted to include something for a listener who might want to hear originals.

AAJ: Maybe it's also a step in a direction you'd like to go in?

NF: Yes, absolutely.

AAJ: Would you call this a jazz CD?

NF: Yes it is, but I've drawn the inspiration from a number of different genres in there. I've included a country and western ballad in there that's always been close to my heart [I Can't Make You Love Me]. And a couple of songs by Stevie Wonder. Stevie Wonder is also one of my idols. He's the kind of musician I aspire to be like. A wonderful singer, a great poet, an incredible musician and a great communicator. Such a broad talent and it inspires me.

AAJ: How does it feel to be categorised as a jazz singer when you make forays into other genres from time to time?

NF: I consider myself to be a jazz soul singer and a lot of the stuff I have written is more soul music or R&B rather than strictly jazz. I studied opera – my grandmother was an opera singer – but I don't consider myself an opera singer. It gave me the foundation to do the rest of it. Unfortunately you need to have a category. [laughs] You can't win a Grammy in the miscellaneous category, can you.

The musicians, performers and singers that I admire are ambiguous in that way. I went and saw Bonnie Raitt at the Blues festival recently... On the record, I do one of the songs that she's famous for – 'I Can't Make You Love Me'. She is so inspiring. I want to be like that – not a flash in the pan. And the fact that I am thirty and have just released the first album that I can say is really me, makes me feel like I'm just starting.

AAJ: When and how did you make the transition from pop to jazz?

NF: When I was a bout seventeen my mum went to a pub in Williamstown [a suburb in Melbourne] and when she got home she said to me, 'You've got to come hear this jazz group'. I really hadn't heard much jazz. I grew up with Elvis, Aretha Franklin, Motown – all of which gave me a really good grounding. And opera. There was always opera.

I went down the next weekend, tagged along with my mum and I loved it. I met the clarinetist – Dave Heatherington – and he was incredible. The next week he had a tape of all this great music to give me a start. Louis Armstrong, Mildred Bailey, Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the most incredible blues artists and early jazz artists – Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan. It was fantastic. So from that I was able to start listening to more from these artists or similar artists and ask a lot of questions.

And then I started singing with the band. I learned a few songs and that was the beginning. [laughs] The beginning and the end. A spinoff of that band formed and I joined them and we travelled around the world together playing at festivals. So I started out with guys who were great musicians. Traditional jazz music might sound easy to play but it isn't easy to play well – and not sound like a circus band. There's a real sophistication in the music. I learned a lot about the sophistication of counter point rhythm on a simple level and it was a great beginning.

AAJ: How was that experience of travelling, so young? How important was it for you as a musician to spend time outside the local scene?

NF: Critical for developing a vision of what is possible. Critical for being able to see what you can actually achieve.

AAJ: Why could an overseas experience can give you that and staying here wouldn't?

NF: I think it's mostly to do with the experience of travelling – the difficulties you face touring. Meeting people who are pretty much the same as you but live life in a different way. Getting to talk to them and hear them play. It's a steeper learning curve than spending time in the one place and doing it slowly.

AAJ: Is it important to live a particular way to be a good musician?

NF: Yes definitely. I think I've always been quite blessed and the struggle to survive has never been too hard. Of course there have been times when it was hard to pay the rent. I've been working for fifteen years at this and only now am I beginning to reap the rewards and some of them are financial. It takes a long time... but I think the hardships are necessary to improve your work.

If you look at successful people – they have a routine. I have one, although the need to work at night time can be very demanding. I live my life like a 'nine-to-fiver' during the week and like a musician on weekends so my system complains sometimes. I find that keeping fit and healthy is the best way to deal with it.

AAJ: How important are the collaborations you have and how hard is it to choose people that you work with?

NF: There are collaborations on different levels. There are musical collaborations where you are performing with people and that can be great or it can be a real challenge depending on personalities or musical ability.

AAJ: What about the collaboration with Joe Chindamo, from your last CD Tender is The Night. Is there more of that coming?

NF: I love working with Joe and we are working on something right now. We both have trouble trying to communicate to people what we do and why it works. We're compatible musically and we like what comes out when we work together. We see ourselves as a separate musical entity - separate to other groups we're both in.

That's why he's not on this new CD. I asked him and at first he said yes, but later on he changed his mind. I think he was able to see the need to keep our collaboration separate – that's probably something that comes from his extra experience. I think it's the right call.

AAJ: You seem to be quite well known in the US. How has that happened?

NF: I made some recordings there and I've had some airplay on Public Radio International which goes across the entire United States. I always know when I've been on air over there because I get emails – I get 8-12 emails a week from people who want to know more. They often can't believe I'm Australian. They find that quite incredible., for some reason. I don't have a solo album over there – they are compilation albums but I've recorded with people like Dick Hyman who did all of Woody Allen's film scores.

AAJ: I notice San Antonio, Texas is an important city for you.

NF: Yes, that's where it all started. The band that I was with played at the Sacramento Festival. I met Jim Cullum in Texas when I did a few nights in San Antonio while on a road trip around the United States with my boyfriend. Jim loved what I was doing and every time I go to the USA I do something with them. Next time I go we'll be recording in Stanford CA.

AAJ: How important is it to promote your own work?

NF: It's very important. Major record labels don't take jazz artists on any more. So I did this whole record myself – Newmarket distributes it but I have to put it together, organise the music, the artwork, put up the money myself, organise the photoshoot – everything from beginning to end. That can be hard. You can spend so much time getting it right that you end up taking time away from the creative side.

AAJ: How do you find the balance? And isn't there a sense of stigma attached to self-promotion?

NF: I ignore that sort of stuff. It doesn't concern me. I see Melbourne as a stepping stone. I see myself as existing in the bigger world. And in the bigger world, self-promotion is a necessary part of my job.

AAJ: What sort of singer would you call yourself.

NF: I ask myself what my purpose? Why am I here? As far as I am concerned I am a communicator and my voice is my instrument of communication. The difference between the human voice and every other instrument is that you can use words. You have a direct line to people, using language.

Many singers ask themselves the question – 'Why am I here? What am I doing'. And the answer to that tells them how to use their voice. Many of us are teachers too... and we give people permission to feel a certain way. Singing is a great release of energy and emotion.

AAJ: What makes Crazy way of Lovin' special for you?

NF: The theme of the album is love, hope and growth. Between each album or each really significant project is a period of growth and learning and pain – all of those things make you a different person. I would say that this last three years has been probably my biggest growth period to date. And I would have to say I'm the happiest now I've ever been.

Nina's website: www.ninaferro.com
Newmarket Music: www.newmarketmusic.com.au

Review by Mick Paddon

Mick Paddon is originally from England and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. He is often seen at gigs in Sydney and other cities, occasionally plays the saxophone and has a weekly show on Eastside Radio 89.7 - a community radio station in Sydney that specialises in jazz. Mick can be contacted by email on [email protected]

Eleven of Twelve (Inspirit)

Sydney is graced by a select number of little/big bands-nine or ten piece groups which use arrangements to combine their voices in the tones, textures and power of a large band but retain sufficient identity for the individual musicians that they are never completely hidden or obscured. The musicians in each of these little/big bands are well known in their own right and they would be on the in-demand lists, so tend not to perform often in this format. Selah, a ten piece which is one of this select group recorded this CD a couple of years ago in 2001. The four piece rhythm section provides a platform for three saxophones in various combinations, a trumpet and, unusually, two trombonists (though one of them, Melissa Kenny, uses voice as her instrument on many of the tracks)

The compositions on the CD are all originals with, as you would expect from such a diverse and widely experienced group, credits shared between four of the band. In a range of musical styles they explore the possibilities of arranged and orchestrated music. The piece I have found myself returning to most often is the title track, Eleven of Twelve. It an uses an overlay of insistent pulses, starting with the brass, moving to a repeated piano motif, then interjecting in and around the first trombone solo before easing into a comfortable swing. Comfortable would probably be my word for summing up the CD. Musicians who are at ease in each other and what they are playing with no audible strains which could perhaps do with a few more fireworks.

Available for purchase from Birdland Records: www.birdland.com.au

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Reviews by Adrian Jackson

Adrian Jackson is a well-known Australian jazz writer, the artistic director of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival and the Director of the award-winning TAC Wangaratta Festival of Jazz. All of Adrian Jackson's reviews that appear in this column were originally published in The Bulletin www.ninemsn.com.au/bulletin and are reprinted here with their kind permission

Michelle Nicolle
The Crying Game (ABC Jazz)

Michelle Nicolle's last CD was a live recording that documented a typical club set from her Quartet. The Melbourne singer has opted for more variety in instrumentation this time around, as well as a theme in the choice of material: all the songs are taken from movies, ranging in vintage from Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times to Trainspotting. The strategy pays handsome dividends, with Nicolle's vocals complemented by Anthony Schulz's accordion on 'To Sir With Love', Stephen Magnusson's imaginative, sighing guitar on "The Crying Game", or Ian Collard's earthy blues harmonica and vocals on "Something Good". "A Spoonful Of Sugar" gets a Hot Club-style swing arrangement, while "Perfect Day" features a brass band. Between Nicolle's finely judged interpretations, the fresh arrangements and the strong contributions of the various musicians, it adds up to a jazz vocal album that deserves to attract a wide audience.

The Necks

Drive By (ReR)

Sydney trio The Necks continue to attract critical raves and fans, at home and abroad, with their unique approach to jazz-influenced improvisation. I have found their performances consistently inspired, but have had reservations about some of their studio recordings. Drive By is more of the same: bassist Lloyd Swanton and drummer Tony Buck maintain (with subtle variations) a simple, mesmerising rhythmic pattern, while Chris Abrahams adds a range of patterns and textures on piano, organ or synth, the music developing ever so gradually. But where their last album, Aether, struck me as tedious, I find this set mesmerising, its use of overdubs and ambient sounds very effective. It's hard to review this music, in that one track isn't different to the next, one soloist can't be compared to another. It's simply an hour of music, take it or leave it. The growing ranks of Necks fans will be happy to take it.

See the interview with Lloyd Swanton .

The Necks Website: www.thenecks.com
Purchase ABC Jazz: http://shop.abc.net.au
Newmarket Music: www.newmarketmusic.com.au class="f-right"> Back to top ^

More Aussie Jazz on AAJ

See the AAJ Australian Jazz Korner thread, started by Kenny Weir in Melbourne. Wonderful posts, and some great hints and pointers for gigs in Melbourne... I will be using this as a gig guide when I next head South!


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