Interview questions can be really interesting, and encourage you to think along lines you haven’t before. They’re the best ones, and when the interviewer shows a genuine interest in what you have to say the experience is rewarding all round. Or so I believe. The title of this post is along the less creative line, but it does come up, and people seem fascinated by it. The reasons for this can be conjectured; why do you do what you do? Who told you to do it like that? Did you want to copy them, or did it just turn out that way unconsciously? Perhaps, even, is there someone I can check out whom I didn’t know before? (That’d be the best of it, probably.)
Favourites are so very personal, so hard to credit in any objective fashion at all. Why do I like what I like? Why is that doing the thing to me that it is doing? How come they’re not crying? (I am!) And while we’re at it, why do all those dumb bastards credit that nonsense when it’s so disposable, so second-hand, so useless?
The very great Professor Tony Gould used to talk about Thelonious Monk, whose piano playing he did not rate, but try to put on a sympathetic tone, saying, ‘I was listening with my Bill Evans ears. I need to put on my Thelonious Monk ears for that.’ Which was kind, in its own way, but didn’t completely do away with the idea that he didn’t think Thelonious really knew how to play the piano.
Now Monk was an individual. I’ve written about him already. He had a very personal conception of how the piano should sound in jazz, and he observed it at every opportunity. He knew the history of the music, and he had the church in there as well, but he synthesised things totally individually, so his contribution is distinctive and uncompromising. (I once had a dream that I met him and I was so sorry when I woke up and it hadn’t been true. He was wearing an overcoat and a hat, of course. And I once had a fabulous piano teacher who had actually met him, so in the handshake game…)
Now, who are my favourites? And for what am I listening when I choose a favourite? What musical parameters need to be most effectively addressed in order to attract my taste? Monk is a favourite, for his individualism and his wilful difference. Also for the time in my life when I got to know his music and was first learning about playing jazz myself. I mentioned the example of his compositions and this is still very strong for me. I haven’t mentioned his humour but that is another thing that appeals to me. A piece like ‘Raise four’ could only be a joke; it’s ridiculous and silly and you kind of can’t believe anyone would make it. A bit like in Bird where Charlie Parker’s wife is complaining that he has been poorly paid for writing tunes and he says, ‘You should hear the tunes!’ The quality of Monk’s piano sound is entirely his own, and although it’s not as ‘sweet’ a sound as, say, Bill Evans’s, he is entirely consistent with it, and as I’ve said, the intention is as strong as can be.
Keith Jarrett is not a player whose music seems rich in humour, although there are a couple of moments where he appears to be having fun. The quotes from ‘The way you look tonight’ on Standards Live that eventually result in that piece being called and performed is one such. But he has a greater degree of seriousness about everything than a player like Monk does, and while I like that too it’s a very different aesthetic positioning.
He is among my favourites for his exceptionally cultivated piano sound, and his extraordinarily sophisticated harmonic understanding, and for the bravery of the free concerts. The longevity of his contribution, its protean creative impulse, the very range of things he has contributed, put him close to the top for me. And again his emergence in my life; for Christmas 1989 my best friends at the time gave me the LP of The Köln Concert and my parents Standards Live and I still put them on the turntable now and then. This was immediately before I started at uni. I’d met Professor Gould and was off to the VCA. Such warm memories of things that have disappeared.
Tony Gould is among my favourites for several reasons: he introduced me to Jarrett and Evans, and he fulminated against Monk, and the less said about his thoughts on pop music the better. But he was an active creative example to whom I looked up, and going to the Palace Hotel in East Hawthorn and hearing him with Ben Robertson and Steve Heather (the latter’s improvisation on Richie Beirach’s ‘Madagascar’ has never left me) was to feel in touch with something urgent, personal, real. He was pleased that I had some classical background and that although I was deeply interested in jazz I could play a little of the European stuff too. He encouraged me to find my own way, to listen to myself and to be true to what I heard. He is the reason I could synthesise the classical music I know and the jazz I have learned and any pop stuff that hangs around in my ears and make my own pieces my own way.
Here’s another thing. Tony being someone you could actually pop along and hear playing the piano was in the manner of an object lesson. To be taught by someone who is active in the field has been tremendously important to me, and since going to uni, the teachers I had, Greg Gear, Donna Coleman, Tony, Paul Grabowsky, Joe Chindamo, are all people who get out there and make their own stuff and see how it flies. I could go to concerts or to the club or whatever and see them dealing with the work. It seems to me that there’s a bunch of teachers who give playing away, because they’re bankrolled by their teaching and it’s suddenly not as attractive as it used to be. Certainly this is the case in the secondary school world. Fine teachers, no doubt, but continuing with no performance profile whatsoever. No gigs, no recordings, no composition – creativity zero. This strikes me as an enormous shame.
So anyway, back to Tony. All that personal backing he gave me went with his exquisite touch at the instrument, his fondness for ballads, his incorporation of Irish influence. I’d go along to hear him and think, well it’s Tony. I’ve probably heard it all already, but I’ll check it out. And then out he’d come, and launch into ‘My song’ and immediately my breath was taken away and I’m all, right, yeah, that’s why I’m here.
Mickey Tucker taught me piano in third year as an undergraduate, and he’s the guy who had met Monk. His connection with things I was only dreaming about was a gift from heaven, and the way he could discuss concepts of piano playing was truly amazing. He would say, just put the fifth down in the bass. If your right hand swings, you’ll be fine. And I was trying to do everything all over the place, complicating matters well beyond necessity. Also, not swinging. His demonstration in performance (again: he was someone who performed) was another object lesson. I remember hearing him at the Continental with Sonja Horbelt and Annette Jenko, and the swing was out of this world. His approach to ‘Star eyes’ I can still hear in my mind’s ear. The first two notes of the tune recast as sharp-nines. Quiet, intense. And his encore, where he started an R&B groove, then into the microphone roared, ‘weeeellll’ before stopping abruptly and saying, ‘It’s time to go home now.’ Musicianship of the highest order, with heart and humour. I have collected the recordings of his I can find and I play them regularly. A definite favourite.
Paul Grabowsky is a favourite because when I was very young and green he showed me that this big jazz music could also be very Australian. I’ve written about it before, although right now I can’t find where; hearing Paul’s trio in 1990 and that they played tunes with names like ‘Colonial sketch no. 1’ or ‘Happy go lucky country’, when I was first reading Patrick White, was a revelation. This is extra-musical, I suppose, but that’s important too; nowadays, as also I’ve said elsewhere, auto-ethnography is a big thing although I feel it should be entry-level work for anyone getting involved in music at all, let alone creative improvised music. The permission to say actually I’m Australian and there’s all this other non-jazz stuff in my history and understanding, was liberating, and helped me get along to do whatever it is that I’ve done. Also, Paul’s piano playing is quite terrifyingly brilliant and I am constantly stunned by his invention.
But then favourites need not actually be piano players. If you can’t take inspiration from someone who doesn’t play your own instrument then you’re suffering, I reckon, because there is so much incredibly amazing shit out there. I was about to name Billie Holiday, whom I adore, but suddenly I remembered how much Al Browne used to talk about her and the influence that she had had on him. He’s a favourite, because of his tireless energy to meet new things and his sympathetic approach to all manner of jazz and his extraordinarily beautiful and sensitive work at the drums. Billie is a favourite too, though, because of her time, her profound feeling, and her signature sound. Anyone who disses Lady in Satin because they think she was past it earns a black mark from me.
And others aren’t even in jazz. Martha Argerich is a favourite because she kicked the bollocks out of Schumann’s Kreisleriana in 1984. Leonard Bernstein is a favourite because he wrote West Side Story, and because he waved the stick in front of the Vienna Phil playing the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. Gustav Mahler is a favourite too, for reasons that I hope are obvious.
All very personal, all in there somewhere. C’est moi.