June-July 2003


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I don't ever do jazz performances continuously for six months. There are always other projects.
—Mark Isaacs

These notes include:

  • Welcome
  • Reviews: (No reviews this time around - get ready for a bumper offering in the August / September edition!)
  • Requests (tell us if there's someone you'd like to see us profile, or any Australian jazz topic that you think requires investigation.)
  • General News (news from three Australian cities and links to interesting sites in each)
  • Artist Profile - Mark Isaacs (pianist, composer, lucky dip afficionado)
  • Rufus Records - "The Adventurous Label" (a conversation with Tim Dunn, who confesses to being a conservative non-conformist and once had a cat called Rufus)



Hello, and welcome to the June / July 2003 edition of Notes from Downunder. A new face, but the same high-quality information about what's going on in the Australian jazz scene as you've been receiving from Shane Nichols. Taking advantage of the change-of-face, we'd like to introduce some different types of information - some general news and links to our sources, so that you can join mailing lists, and receive real-time updates from the sites you love.

Many people say Australian jazz is 'different'. I hope that in the months that follow, I can help define that difference, by talking to local artists, reviewers, labels, festival directors and maybe even some overseas artists who visit our fair shores, to get a complete picture of what makes Australian jazz 'Australian'.

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General News and links

Below is some of what's happening around Sydney, Melbourne and Perth at the moment.

Perth (Western Australia)

A vital and exciting wave of talent has been emergin in and from this State over recent times. In current news, we hear that Andrew Fisenden is this year's winner of the James Morrison scholarship. Other recent WA winners of this award include Jamie Oehlers (sax), Matt Lees (trombone), Matt Jodrell (trumpet), Troy Roberts (sax) and Dane Alderson (bass). Jamie Oehlers, currently based in Melbourne was also a finalist in the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz 2002 and Montreux 2002 jazz competitions for saxophone. Troy Roberts was a recent winner of two Downbeat awards in the USA (outstanding solo performance and outstanding group performance).

Alderson and Roberts are also members of the group 'K', that has recently completed a tour to the Eastern States of Australia to launch their debut CD New.

Detailed updates are available at the website for JazzWA, the government funded jazz development office in Western Australia. www.jazzwa.com

Sydney (New South Wales)

www.eastsidefm.org - A new website for Eastside Radio, 89.7 Jazz Plus - Sydney's only radio station specialising in jazz. Eastside radio features jazz presenters who are musicians and their music encompasses the full range of jazz styles - from swing to Latin to bebop. Eastside specialist music programs cover soul, blues and funk, Cuban and Brazilian, gypsy, world and dance. Presenters include: Lloyd Swanton (bass - The Necks , The catholics) and Matt McMahon (piano), Dan Barnett (trombone), Bob Bertles (sax - mentioned in our Rufus Records feature in this edition), Gerard Masters (piano). Unfortunately, the website doesn't have streaming media, so you can't listen in, but the definitely worth a visit, particularly for any Sydney-siders reading this, or anybody planning to visit Sydney who wants to tune in to some jazz while they're in town - either on the radio or at one of the many local jazz gigs (the site has a well-researched gig guide that's updated weekly).

Melbourne (Victoria)

Under the auspices of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival (to be held next in May 2004) a new national jazz award has been launched. Affectionately known as The Bells, nominations have now closed for the award, which will be announced in August. Check future Notes from Downunder for some great interviews with winners and others involved in the awards. The National Jazz Awards is an annual event that will recognise and encourage excellence in performance, recording and presentation in Australian and international jazz. For more information on the awards and updates on the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, see www.mijf.org

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Is there a particular Australian jazz artist you'd like to know more about - someone whose music you really enjoy, perhaps and you feel like you just have to know more about them? A topic to do with Australian jazz that requires investigation? A CD you want reviewed? Please contact Miriam at [email protected] with your suggestions.

Rufus Records - 'The Adventurous Label'

Have you noticed ? People who find jazz and are caught up in its magic often find themselves wanting to give something back. Tim Dunn, President of Rufus Records - the small Sydney based label dubbed 'The Adventurous Label' by the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD - is one such person. When Dunn started Rufus Records in the early nineties, it was in direct response to the music he was hearing for the first time - moving, personal, intelligent music. Years on, Rufus Records is still a one-man show, with a catalogue of which Dunn is justifiably proud. And it's still very much a labour of love ( not about the money). AAJ caught up with the mild-mannered Dunn over a glass of the red stuff to talk about what possessed him to start the label that is now recognised at home and abroad for its quality and distinctive Australian sounds.

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AAJ: How do you choose the music you release?

Tim Dunn: Well I have the luxury of having no musical training, which on the one hand makes me nervous but on the other hand allows me to just follow what I like. And obviously I try and support that with some ideas about whether I feel there's an emotional impact in the music, whether it's intelligent, for various reasons.

I have my own backyard kind of ways of working out why I think the music is good but there have been times over the years, where I'd been sent a tape and I wasn't sure if it was really bad or really really good! [laughs] Sometimes I have to ask myself 'Is that minimal or is just that there is nothing there?' Primarily, I find that you have to make a very simple judgement - 'if it doesn't affect me in any way, then why bother'?

By and large, I found that all of the sixty or so CDs that I have released on the label have enthused me - I feel I can get behind them, and feel personal about them. And they're not always adventurous. For example, one of my favourite albums is Graeme Norris's Pentatomic - it's a sound that's kind of hard bop, West coast and some other elements. It's lyrical and just really nicely done. I think it's beautiful. And Bob Bertles is a great player, who works in an established idiom - once again not pushing any boundaries.

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AAJ: Do you have a vision for the label - a roadmap?

TD: Early on I did, roughly, but it was totally unrealistic. However I did feel that there was something distinctive about Australian players - it might be something as simple as that they were more easy-going than overseas artists, but there was something there that was different and I wanted to capture that.

AAJ: Do you still feel that?

TD: Yes, I do. I mean Bernie [McGann] 's playing gets to great intensity and there's also a wonderful lyricism there or a hard driving edge or whatever it might be, but no matter what, behind it there is something loose, something more easy-going... And I know that to be true of Bernie as a person as well.

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AAJ: You know many of the musicians who record with you quite well. How important are those relationships in your decisions to release?

TD: It was always important to me to support musicians in this way, with a label. I believed in what they were doing and wanted to get behind it. And because I believed in what I was doing, I was able to turn a blind eye, over the years, to how much money I was losing. [laughs] When I had a job I didn't really care. And even when I didn't have a job, I felt it was important in the prevailing political climate, to make the statement that I reject the Government's attitude to the Arts. I'm really quite stubborn when I decide to do something. So, actually I think there is a range of uncoordinated things there that contribute.

AAJ: When did you start being interested in this sort of music?

TD: Not long before the label, actually. I moved to Paddington [a suburb in Sydney] after being away for three years and there were some people there I knew - Alistair Spence, Adam Simmonds and some others. They were in a band called Monica and the Moochers and Alistair used to invite me along to gigs. In those days the band included Mike Bukovsky, James Greening, also Bernie McGann for a while. And that was really my first exposure. Years ago I had been given a Stephan Grapelli album with Yehudi Menuhin - and I must have heard other jazz. I knew names, of course, like Ella Fitzgerald and so forth but I really knew nothing about it. I was more involved in classical music and rock and blues. So Alistair had just started with Wanderlust and Clarion Fracture Zone had just started up and I went to some of those gigs and just had an immediate response, without knowing anything about it.

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AAJ: You say on the website that it was a Wanderlust gig that inspired you to start the label...

TD: Yes, after a Wanderlust gig I asked Mike [Bukovsky] whether he had ever thought about recording. That was the first time I had actually formulated the question. He gave me some figures of how much it would cost to get a recording together, which turned out to be far too low, but they were figures I felt I could manage. In the end the real costs were only about double what we thought they would be - it was never going to cost as much as a rock record. I didn't release that recording, but then Clarion Fracture Zone came to me with an album they'd recorded. We went ahead with that one[ Zones on Parade , CFZ's second CD]. But that was still just one release - I couldn't really call it a label at that point. The Mighty Reapers used to play at the Woollahra Hotel which was about 50 metres from where I lived, and you could get in for free on Sunday nights. I had already heard them supporting BB King and really enjoyed their sound. They had done a recording but hadn't released it yet - hadn't even got around to finishing it - so I did that one too. Then one night I couldn't sleep and I realised that was two CDs I was going to have released - it seemed like it was turning into a label. I had the name Rufus already. Rufus was the name of a cat I'd had. My brother, who is an architect, designed the logo. I suppose it sort of happened step by step.

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AAJ: You've done it on your own from the start?

TD: Yes, I've resisted getting involved with other people. Other people tell you what to do and I didn't want to release recordings I didn't like. I've released things I had a lesser response to and I've released things that I wouldn't release now, but there was nobody telling me 'You have to do this or that'.

AAJ: So you were trying to avoid compromising?

TD: [laughs] No, actually I was just being stubborn. I'm used to doing what I want. I couldn't imagine releasing something just to make money. That's never been a reason to release music on the label. And I don't want to spend my life working with people I have no respect for, basically. Life's too short and there's too much at stake. I'm just not going to do that.

AAJ: What does the future hold?

TD: Well, I've been studying Ancient History and I've developed an interest in archeology, which are taking up my time at the moment. That said, there are a few Rufus Records projects I really want to do in the future. Another Bernie McGann release is on the cards and a solo [piano] CD with Colin Hopkins that I'm looking forward to. With solo piano releases, I like the process of giving the musician maybe the germ of an idea, and an album cover as an idea but without being fascist about it. Just seeing where that goes - I enjoy that process without being prescriptive.

AAJ: The Dave Brewer covers are a striking aspect of the label.

TD: Yes, that's Dave Brewer the guitarist with the Mighty Reapers and also The catholics. There are about fifteen CDs in the catalogue with his artwork on the cover. Nobody is under any obligation to use his artwork for their cover of course. But there's something textural and warm about his painting - a great sense of colour and I think it's a nice mix with the music.

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AAJ: How would you describe the music you release on the label, without reverting the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD description 'The Adventurous Label'?

TD: Well actually, I like to think of myself as a conservative non-conformist. I would probably say that about the label as well. I'm not musically trained and I don’t know all the ins and outs of music. I just respond to the music and I find there's a sense of immediacy about most of it - obviously some more than others. Maybe it's an adventure in terms of the fact that I'm someone who doesn't know much about business either- who just invests lots of money [laughs]... There's no great system about it. It probably reflects my own bower-bird nature where I see a nice shiny thing over here and then an attractive blue thing over there and I collect them all. [pause] I suppose in the end it's one person's response to a musical scene in Australia - or Sydney in particular - that's pretty rich and diverse.

AAJ: Are there any projects that particularly stand out for you as positive experiences?

TD: I'm really proud of the Paul MacNamara solo album Conversations. Once, in the church at Paddo [Paddington] Paul just walked in and started playing the piano while he was waiting for someone. It was so romantic, really fantastic. That was years ago and since then I'd always had that side of Paul in my mind. He's very quiet and doesn't project a lot and there's so much in him - I wanted to capture some of that on a record. That last song on the album "My foolish heart" is one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard, and yet it doesn't drip with sentiment. That was one of the CDs I released when I was literally broke and I remember saying 'stuff it, this is something I want to do', and did it anyway.

I'm proud of the Tim Stevens CD, and all the Bernie McGann CDs. Oh, and Margie Evans. I'm proud of that. She'd been at the Byron Bay Blues Festival and she'd got wet and I walked into the studio on the day we were to record, and she had totally lost her voice [does barely audible imitation of Margie Evans with no voice]. I thought we were stuffed. But she was fabulous. She was having herbal teas and it was all done in about three hours. Occasionally, maybe two or three times, there was a second take, but mostly it was done on first take because with Margie, she's making such a powerful emotional statement. She was in Australia, so the opportunity was there, and I'm down by a lot on that album, but I don't care.

For new releases, catalogue information, quotes and reviews, see the Rufus Records Website: www.rufusrecords.com.au

Mark Isaacs - Life's just a Lucky Dip!

Ever been to a school fete or kid's birthday party that featured a lucky dip? You put your hand in to the cardboard box full of packages and pull out a surprise. It could be the best toy you've ever had - or something else. The main point is, you don't know what's coming to you, until you get it. And a lucky dip is exactly what Mark Isaacs, one of Australia's best jazz pianists, feels like he's doing at the moment. He's set himself up for a couple of months of surprises and unknowns.

For example: he's just been invited back, for the second year in a row, to the Pori jazz festival in Finland.

Last year, Isaacs performed at Pori with a trio that featured the top-class rhythm section of Jay Anderson (bass) and Adam Nussbaum (drums) - both from New York. The three musicians had never played together before but had agreed they'd like to. "Basically I got off the plane from Sydney and they got off the plane from New York and we did a sound check and that was the first time we'd played together." He says it was a blast. A bit like a lucky dip, but as Isaacs says, "Adam is a drummer whom I've always liked - a master drummer with a wonderful outreach in his play. He's touched a lot of people around the world. He listened to my CD Closer and said he'd be interested in doing some sort of project with me. When I told him I was looking for a bassist, he said 'Jay's your man'. So I knew a little bit more about what I was pulling out of the box last year than I do this time!" Isaacs toured with Anderson and Nussbaum in Australia afterwards, much to the delight of audiences at the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and in Sydney. The yet-to-be-released Standards Project CD was recorded live with both Nussbaum and Anderson (Check out the AAJ review at www.allaboutjazz.com/reviews/r0503_141.htm )

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However, as part of this year's lucky dip, Isaacs will be a sort of 'floating pianist' at the Pori Jazz Festival (to be held in July) and only knows at this point that he'll be performing on each of the seven days of the festival and he is running a jam session on 19 July (which is sold out, by the way). Nothing else has been firmed up. Concerned? Not in the least. Why would he be? After all he'll be heading straight from Pori to New York City to do some workshops with some mates [including Anderson], and then on to a two and a half week residency at Music Omi International Musicians' Residency Program in upstate New York. Each year thirteen musicians are invited to attend the residency program for two and a half weeks and encouraged to bring with them "...a willingness to share their skills and sensibilities, and an openness to working together with others on jointly conceived musical projects." (according the official Omi Arts website www.artomi.org/music.htm) "Many unknowns," says Isaacs, "but it could be unbelievable if things click. The possibilities are endless."

Isaacs' own original training was classical, and he opines that he has 'never made the move from classical to jazz'. He explains by saying he grew up in an environment where he was exposed to jazz quite early, with jazz and classical musicians in the family. "I really just learned a language that had both of those components - one language inflected in different ways." He first started composing at around twelve years of age and it remains a great love - and an area of his work where he enjoys considerable success. All his recordings prior to the Standards Project feature original work. When we spoke, he was just completing a commission for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, featuring renowned trumpeter James Morrison. The piece is to be premiered in Melbourne in August. This time last year, he was working on another commission - a chamber work for the Australia Ensemble. Early this year, he ran a jazz originals residency at Sydney's side-on café with Roger Manins [saxophonist and winner of the 2002 Wangaratta Festival of Jazz Awards]. "I chose, for about six months, for my output in terms of jazz to be standards, but I don't ever do jazz performances continuously for six months. There are always other projects."

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Reviews of Isaacs' work consistently describe his brilliance as a composer. Listen to a range of his recordings or live performances and you'll hear him demonstrate an abiltiy to play with a crystalline intensity, or swing with the best of them. Pat Metheny has said of him 'With each new release Mark finds a new angle of addressing his prodigious talents and I find myself looking forward to seeing what he will come up with next. There is a sophisticated musicality at work that is special and rare. He is a serious musician looking to solve deep questions'. High praise indeed, considering the source. Other reviews also refer to Isaacs' compositions and musicality in a way that's linked to the cerebral. So, is he consciously trying to solve deep questions? Says Isaacs, "I'm just doing what I do, and yet the answer to that is yes and no." He doesn't believe that an artist maps their work to questions in a literal, conscious way, but acknowledges "... I do ponder alot of issues very deeply and I do find that I like to use my mind ... I actually like to think. Perhaps thinking is a dying art in our society. I believe the media is so pervasive that it basicaly tells people how they should think ... I hate all that. I was blessed at high school with an incredible English teacher who taught me alot about discourse, about the discoursal nature of thinking. He also had this theme - I kind of existential axiom - and he saw this same theme being played out in all literature. Everything boiled down to the conflict between the material world and the deeper and far more profound world of spiritual aspirations, moral integrity." Before being exposed to these ideas through his teachers, Isaacs had already been quite interested in mysticism from quite a young age - he used to read occult books and had always been interested in transcendental ideas of various kinds. He acknowledges this aspect of his approach to music by saying "I just write the music that I write and play the music that I play but if somehow those deeper things are coming out in the music and Pat [Metheney] is picking it up... maybe that's what it's all about."

Despite the lucky dip uncertainty of the next few months, Isaacs plans to enjoy the different types of creative opportunities offered by the Pori Festival and Omi. "While I'm in Pori, I'll be playing with people I haven't played with before and standards provide a template, a common starting ground that we can explore and communicate within. I'm thrilled to be going back there," he says. "and at Omi, I am looking forward to some exciting, original collaboration with a whole different kind of kindred musical spirit. Not all the musicians there will be from a strictly jazz place, but everybody there will be improvisers." No matter what, he's ready to be inspired.

Related Links:

AAJ review of Isaacs' CD Closer

AAJ review of the Standards Project

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