In this edition: Simon Barker says he's often surprised that he's as much in demand as a drummer as he is. He's not sure what inspires musicians to ring him up and see if he's free for gigs. "But I feel honoured," he admits, "when a musician entrusts me with their vision." The musicians who make the calls all sing with the same voice. What Barker has, they say, is empathy and its associated ability to develop rapport, combined with drumming that has a relaxed yet controlled rhythmic quality that keeps him constantly in demand.
Simon Barker has been drumming seriously since he was about seventeen. Jazz appealed to him from when he first heard it and inspired him to practice. Before he heard jazz, he was probably most into heavy metal, but he was open to all sorts of styles, including, for example, Egberto Gismonti, the Brazilian guitarist. "Simply put," he says "I was into music." More than anything, he loved, and still loves, the texture, sound and rhythms of jazz.
Keen to explore the genre, Barker is very aware that Australia sits, geographically, in an Asian context and like many musicians of his age and sensibility, seeks to broaden his experience of music within that context.
Early inspirations were Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix, particularly the album Rainbow Bridge. As a drummer, his early inspiration came from players in the USA, whom Simon calls the 'big jazz players' - Philly Joe Jones, Jon Christensen, Elvin Jones, Ed Blackwell. The album Old and New Dreams was a particular favourite. "I used to play it over and over again," he says. "In the beginning," he says "I didn't understand anything. Eddie Blackwell's sound fascinated me - I was open to anything."
Barker's approach is still permeated by the sense of openness that guided his exploration when he first started to take the drums seriously. He is, and always has been, open to learning, and open to being taken in whatever direction the music and his fellow musicians are going.
This is reflected in the projects that most attract him, creatively. He loves working with fellow Sydney-siders Phil Slater (trumpet) and Matt McMahon (keyboards) on projects such as The Band of Five Names ( www.bo5n.com
) - their improvising trio. The trio relies heavily on the close bonds these musicians have forged over more than ten years playing together. Says Barker of the experience of playing with Slater and McMahon "Their taste in music has informed mine, and I suppose there's probably been some influence in the other direction as well. We have a shared vocabulary and the way we play together is something I can't seem to experience with any other musicians. What we have is very special."
He also loves playing with Scott Tinkler and Paul Grabowsky - something he experience recently when touring with the two of them recently, promoting Grabowsky's exceptional new album Tales of Time and Space
. "Scott's not the wild man he used to be," says Barker, but hastens to add that that's not a negative or positive
comment about the music he used to play or the direction he's heading in at the moment. For Barker, what makes a musician interesting is more based around them being committed to their own artistic drive - something that's true for both Tinkler and Grabowsky. Barker's association with Tinkler has been going for years - he is the drums in the Scott Tinkler Trio recordings Dance of Delulian
, Shrike Like
and Sofa King
Not particularly interested in leading his own group at this point, Barker is switched on most by the idea of musical collaboration. When he does a gig with someone he hasn't played with before, or even with a familiar face who is working on a new project, he researches thoroughly. He prepares by listening to the music that they're into so that when they do play together, he has some idea of what they're trying to do. The spontaneity of the music and limited rehearsal time carry a risk that the musicians may not be able to do justice to the composer's or leader's vision - a risk that Barker tries to mitigate with preparation and empathy. "I hate it most when I do a gig and the composer or band leader feels like they haven't met the expectations they have of their music."
Apart from his work locally, Barker has strong links with South Korea and in 2000 received AsiaLink funding for a three month residency in Seoul. He was initially introduced to North Asia when he toured with Mark Isaacs in 1994. "We were on our way to Siberia," he says, "which I suppose you could say is 'North, North Asia'." At that time, he found Seoul exciting, even though on that first trip he barely scratched the surface of the place. He was fascinated by the city and its rhythms - right down to the way people lived and ate. Since that first contact he's been back a few times - for the residency and he's also been asked to go back with other Australian bands to fill in for gigs, and has additionally found himself teaming up with Korean musicians in local bands.
An example of an artistic alliance that Barker enjoys is the one he has formed with Won Il, a Korean musician who plays traditional instruments and is well known in his own country for the scores he has written for many Korean films. When in Korea, whether playing with Won Il or with other local musicians, the genre-of-choice is jazz. "It's a shared language," he says, while acknowledging that the tradition of improvisation in Korea is has different origins than the jazz improvisation tradition. "Improvisation in the Korean context is most successful where it draws on the Korean musical improvisation that is thousands of years old and deeply rooted in the shamanistic religious tradition. Traditional improvising musicians are everywhere, if you know where to look," says Barker. On trips to Korea, he researches thoroughly and travels to the home villages of practitioners whose music he wants to learn from. "I go to where they are and I hope that I find the music I'm after," he says. "I take my chances that I'll get to hear them play somewhere local."
Something else that comes out of the deeply seated spiritual context of Korean drumming is the techniques that the best musicians develop to play powerfully and yet remain relaxed. In this way at least, Barker says that drumming is like a martial art. He also says he has learned much of what he knows about power and relaxation by studying with drumming masters in Korea. "It was something I had to be taught," he says, "but I didn't study with a great jazz drummer, which would have been one way to approach it." He feels fortunate to have access to a culture where he can learn these skills from masters who dedicate a lifetime to perfecting them. It's one of the great things, according to Barker, about living in this region and about being active in the local scene at this point in the history of Australian jazz. "Musicians here, like Scott Tinkler, are unique. Maybe what they do can only happen here." The way Barker sees it, it's early days for the development of an Australian jazz idiom because it's only in the last thirty years that we've really been able to engage in this region. "I believe in the idea of developing a sound that truly examines the musician's experience. You can't do that without drawing on your environment - whether it's urban or rural, the narrow Australian context or the wider context of the countries that surround us."
Only in his early thirties, Barker hardly seems old enough to be able to talk about a gap between what's available to new drummers in their teens and early twenties, compared to the opportunities he had 'as a young man'. Yet, he says, the exposure that our local musicians have in Australia to the music played by great artists from around the world is constantly improving. With the advent of television, videos and DVDs of concerts, a musician can hear and see players that they would only have had access to by travelling or if they were fortunate enough to have tickets to concerts here when musicians were on a tour down south to Australia, New Zealand and cities throughout Asia. "These younger guys, like Felix Bloxsom and others his age, are amazing," he says, "and the exposure they've had to great musicians is ten times better than it could have been ten years ago. That's just going to keep improving as information gets easier to come by."
And meanwhile, the phone keeps ringing at Barker's place. Notes:
Band of Five Names website - www.bo5n.com
Scott Tinkler's website - www.stinkler.com
Paul Grabowsky's website- www.paulgrabowsky.com
Asia Link website- www.asialink.unimelb.edu.au/index.html
class="f-right"> Back to top ^
About a year ago, we spoke to Mark Isaacs as he was about to fly out of Australia for a residency at Omi and then on to the Pori Jazz Festival in Finland for the second year in a row. At the time, Isaacs was working on what he called his Standards Project and at Pori, he was looking forward to playing with Jay Anderson (bass) and Adam Nussbaum (drums). It was also with this trio, the CD Keeping the Standards was recorded. The CD, released earlier this year, has been receiving great reviews - including two on AAJ - and was also listed as a publisher's pick in May, so it's certainly achieved a following on this website.
Was the Standards Project a one-off? Isaacs thinks not - while his current projects include solo gigs, composition for a range of instrumentations including a recently completed piece for viola, residencies at the Side-on Café and plans for an international tour playing in a range of configurations, he enjoys what he calls the delicious tension of playing standards. He says the re-interpretation of existing material has its own originality - somewhere between the built-in predictability of a song that listeners are familiar with, and the challenge to create something fresh enough that it can be appreciated even if the tune is not recognised. Denying that standards are 'old hat', he says he enjoys the freedom they offer - the fact that they are a lingua franca for jazz musicians opens up possibilities of playing with total strangers with the tune's prime importance being a governing force in bringing the band together. Although he's been doing this sort of improvisation for many years, he still finds it fascinating that he can play a familiar tune with other musicians and manage to create something new. Not strictly composition, this sort of playing does go part way towards satisfying him as composer, he says. " I feel I have the luxury of devoting a substantial part of my jazz output to standards - to re-interpretation - because I have an ongoing outlet as a composer within the classical world. If I didn't have that outlet as a classical composer I'd be focussing much more on writing originals in my jazz work than I do."
Projects currently under way or on the horizon for Isaacs include an originals recording and a tour that will take in Korea, Latvia, Estonia, Russia and possibly Finland as well. The main festival gig of his tour will be at RigasRitmi Festival Riga in Latvia.
Check out Isaacs' website
for details of his tour and regular updates on his activities.
AAJ Review by John Kelman :: AAJ Review by C. Michael Bailey
Mark Isaacs' website - www.markisaacs.com
Vorticity Music website - www.vorticitymusic.com
Reviews 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] Michelle Nicolle
The Crying Game
Michelle Nicole is one of the most instantly recognisable vocalists in Australian jazz. Noted (with multi-awards) for her range, technique, interpretation and, particularly, her improvisation, she uses her voice like just another instrument in the band. Well, the 'just another' tag gives much too little credit, but you get the idea. Perhaps because of her improvisational talent, learned through transcribing Miles, Bird and Dizzy, just like a horn player, her choice of material for her latest CD is a bit of a surprise. She has taken a dozen pieces from the movies, several instantly recognisable, and rearranged them for her usual trio of Geoff Hughes on guitar, Howard Cairns on bass (with Ben Robertson deputising on a couple of tracks) and Ronny Ferella on drums . They are joined by twelve others in various combinations on seven of the tracks, adding to the instrumentation and interpretation which is at its richest with the brass quartet playing on Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" (which if you didn't know featured in the movie Trainspotting). This is the most recent of the movies from which she has chosen the tracks. The oldest is Chaplin's composition "Smile" for his 1936 classic Modern Times. The range of music this suggests gives the key to the CD. It is as strong as the pieces selected, which despite Michelle's skills as an arranger and talent as a performer, means stronger in some cases than in others. She says she has done least with "To Sir, With Love" which is why it still bears the imprint of the 60s rock version by Lulu. Lulu herself turned up recently on film belting out a number in Mike Fidges contribution about the UK to the series produced by Martin Scorsese to celebrate that musical tradition of the blues. One of the most convincing of Michelle's transformations on this CD is to turn "Something Good" from the Sound of Music into a gospel infused blues. I always make it a rule to see Michelle Nicolle whenever she is in Sydney as she is such a wonderful vocal-instrumentalist. Perhaps because of the unevenness of the sources, I found it was with a little less enthusiasm than usual when she performed the material from this CD. Mike Nock's Big Small Band
Mike Nock occupies a position in Australian jazz something like that of Art Blakey (though he himself would be the first to deride any such suggestion or comparison). Over nearly two decades his big and small ensembles have given playing opportunities and exposure to a generation of younger musicians in Sydney many of whom have worked with him at the Conservatorium of Music. In recent years, though, his trio has become something of a fixture as a preferred style of playing and interpretation. They provide the predictably assured rhythm section to this rousing live CD recorded in Wollongong in 2002, with Mike himself on keyboards, Brett Hirst on bass and Toby Hall on drums. The writing (all but one of the eight pieces are written by Nock) and the arrangements are intended by him to be an extension of one of his quartets, which is why, he says, this ten-piece is a BigSmallBand. All of the horn players and soloists are now well established in their own rights - Roger Manins is a Wangaratta competition winner on tenor; just last year altoist Andrew Robson won the Freedman Jazz Fellowship; while Dave Panichi worked in the USA with the likes of the Buddy Rich Big Band and Mel Lewis Orchestra. They all add up to a Band that is even more than the sum of these considerable parts. The pieces run through the full repertoire of contemporary big (well largish) band performance at its best. As Mike Nock can be heard to enthuse over the final applause "What a Band!". class="f-right"> Back to top ^
Reviews by Adrian Jackson
Adrian Jackson is a well-known Australian jazz writer 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. Way Out West Footscray Station
This group was formed when trumpeter-composer Peter Knight got together with some neighbors living in Melbourne's western suburbs. On the surface, players like Knight, saxophonist Paul Williamson, bassist Howard Cairns, percussionist Ray Pereira and guitarist Dung Nguyen would appear to have little in common. But one of the strengths of the Melbourne music scene is that players can play various styles of traditional or modern jazz (or blues, R&B, ska or 'ethnic' music), and bring some of those experiences to their next collaboration. That is what happens here, the group achieving a satisfyingly cohesive sound. Nguyen gives the group its most distinctive textures, playing traditional Vietnamese harp and zither-like instruments on most tracks, but all hands contribute some really thoughtful work. The most striking track on the album, "Is The Moon Really That Far Away ?", sports superb, atmospheric cameos from Martin Breeze (spoken word and wordless singing) and Leo Dale (alto flute). Mark Isaacs Keeping The Standards
Recorded live at The Basement, this set finds Sydney pianist Mark Isaacs in the select company of bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Adam Nussbaum, both highly-credentialled New Yorkers. Isaacs usually presents original compositions with his own bands, but here he works with the standard repertoire, taking on the challenge of finding something new to say with some familiar songs. He succeeds brilliantly, whether sustaining a gently romantic mood on "Skylark", or happily digging into a swinging groove on "Falling In Love With Love" or "Gone With The Wind". The most inspired music-making comes on "Somewhere" (from 'West Side Story'), where the trio takes a lengthy, and rewarding, detour both before and after playing the theme at hand. Isaacs confirms his reputation as a pianist with both ideas and the means to express them. Anderson and Nussbaum both excel when given the chance to solo, but mostly concentrate on helping the pianist give his best. Mike Nock's Big Small BandLive
He may be an elder statesman of the Australian jazz scene, but Sydney pianist Mike Nock won't rest on his laurels. He is forever searching for new ways to keep his music fresh, always on the lookout for hot new players to work with. His 10-piece Big Small Band (three brass, three reeds, guitar and rhythm section) is stacked with exciting younger talents like guitarist Cameron Deyell and saxophonists Andrew Robson, Matthew Ottignon and Roger Manins. As the name suggests, this group offers Nock the tonal and textural variety, and a choice of soloists, that he would find in a big band, while retaining the flexibility that is a hallmark of his smaller groups. The program comprises seven pieces by Nock (some new, some originally written for his quartet), plus one commissioned from Melbourne composer, Andrea Keller. Listeners can be grateful that this Wollongong concert was so well recorded : it was an inspired performance, full of thrills and triumphs. Steve Hunter If Blue Was Orange
The majority of pieces here were written by Sydney bass guitarist Steve Hunter (the exceptions include "Las Olas" by Jaco Pastorius, and Miles Davis' serene "Blue In Green"), but it is fair to describe this as essentially a blowing session. Fair enough, when you have assembled a band that can just let go with such authority. Listen to the sparks fly on "Conjure Hum Veda" when guitarist James Muller and saxophonist Dale Barlow start merging into each other's lines over the driving, restless groove laid down by Hunter and drummer Andrew Gander. This is jazz with a dash of fusion in the rhythms and time signatures employed, and the unforced emphasis on instrumental virtuosity. The disc isn't uniformly successful; for example, the reggae-flavored "Jamaica Smile" is too sleepy, and a brief duet between Barlow and Muller (on piano) seems pointless. But for the most part, this is four superior musicians making full use of their talents. class="f-right"> Back to top ^
More Aussie Jazz on AAJ
Australian Jazz Korner - Read reviews, interviews, banter and news on this discussion thread started by Kenny Weir and maintaining momentum thanks to postings by musicians, fans and a box of beignet mix...