Three years ago my PhD reached its double-decade, and that felt like a bit of a moment. (I still think it reads fairly well, and scholarship has not moved so quickly or so far as to have rendered it completely irrelevant.) Recently a few more things have turned twenty. My marriage to Sall, on July 27 last year. Our first child, on 8 April this year. And now my beloved trio with Dave Beck and Ben Robertson. Time is messy, and thinking and talking about it is kind of a good way to waste it, but still we make these markers and we mark them. Birthdays, anniversaries come around and are noted. So I am paying tribute to the fact that Ben and Dave have stuck with me, and listened to my ideas, and worked with them so skilfully, and helped me to make a small contribution to the national cultural life.
I was invited in 1993 to join Ben’s band Songhouse, with Will Guthrie playing drums and Phil Drummy on saxophone. I was fresh out of my undergraduate degree, and while I had a few ideas I really hadn’t got my playing together as yet and I took hour-long solos of wilful indulgence and more or less disgraced myself at the keyboard. Ben had heard something though, to which he had responded, and the band was an enormous learning experience. We drove to Adelaide to play, Ben and myself sharing the driving and singing bebop lines, and we recorded for Jim McLeod’s Jazztrack (once Julien Wilson had come into the band following Mr Drummy’s departure) and we gigged at Bennetts Lane and it was a huge amount of fun.
What became clear was that Ben and I have shared concepts of harmony, things we go for and that intrigue us, and they provided a fertile ground for collaboration. In about 1994 Browne – Haywood – Stevens was formed and that was the focus for me for the next six years in terms of composition and performance; Songhouse came to an end after a few years and everyone moved on. I invited Ben to join Al Browne and myself at Trinity Grammar School, where I was doing my teaching rounds for my Dip Ed, to perform for the students and to talk about improvisatory practice, probably also in 1994.
On several occasions during the 1990s I found myself on stage with Dave Beck, not as I recall doing actual gigs, but more likely as sit-in moments. Whenever it happened, we’d talk afterwards and agree how much we’d enjoyed it. Obviously this is the kind of buoying thing that is a joy to experience, and because I admired Dave’s musicianship so much it was fabulous to think he got something from what I was up to.
I’ve written previously about the defining influence of hearing Paul Grabowsky, Gary Costello and Allan Browne playing at Mietta’s in 1990, and this experience was what put the trio idea firmly in my mind. That and Jarrett and Evans. I don’t mind bands of any size or make-up, but the trio is essentials as far as I’m concerned and everything is possible with this small group. As I said in a tune title on Nine open questions: Three’s a quorum.
Sall and I lived in Sydney between 2000 and very early 2002, when she was studying to specialise as a gastroenterologist. While we lived there I formed a trio with Mark Lau and Simon Barker, and this was another hothouse for my original compositions, which were getting more complicated as I went along. Sydney was also where my first solo album took shape, thanks to the generosity and vision of Tim Dunn, who called out of the blue one day, having heard the Browne – Haywood – Stevens records, to suggest it. The trio with Mark and Simon performed at the Side-On Cafe, and travelled to Europe to perform at Pori Jazz in Finland and Umbria Jazz in Italy. This was unheard of for me; an honour and a sensation that I shall never forget. I mean I heard Keith Jarrett live at Umbria Jazz, and that was, in the truest sense of the words, a once in a lifetime experience.
Anyway Esj’ and I came back to Melbourne. We drove my Toyota Camry for the last time, and spent a night in Albury on the way down. We installed ourselves in Lawes Street, Hawthorn, and shortly married, and although we didn’t know it Oli was already on the way when we tied the knot. And I set about thinking about a new trio, and Ben’s and Dave’s names were forefront in my mind. They were receptive, and so we came together.
I have a thing about making music with people I actually like. I don’t want to play with people for whom my feelings aren’t so great, whether it’s on matters of musical taste or other personal differences. I believe that love is a big part of effective music-making and so when the feeling is good between the people making the music then the music is going to be a whole lot better. As Ben and Dave and I began to rehearse we were getting to know each other better and finding things in common and I believe truly that they contributed to the music that we were making. Trust is so important also, and because we moved from our first album, entirely of original compositions, to a second that was almost entirely free, we were obliged to develop and maintain trust of the most sincere and resonant kind.
Our first album developed from recordings made initially for Jim McLeod’s Jazztrack, in the dying minutes of the final term of Jim’s tenure there. The album was dedicated to him as he retired because he had been so supportive of me and of the trio, but of improvised music right around Australia, for so many years. When the ABC Centre Southbank opened, and suddenly local groups were being recorded for airplay and paid for it, the feeling was incredible. Both the Browne – Haywood – Stevens albums came from this association, and my Sydney trio had recorded for Jazztrack also.
After Nine open questions I imagined we’d make an album each year but of course things didn’t work out that way. Our second album, Three friends in winter, followed fairly closely after NOQ but things slowed after that. The three subesquent albums to these two emerged between 2007 and 2020. Time passes, you know, and things get in the way. Dave’s career has developed so he is the go-to guy for the battery in musicals around town, and they keep him very busy. This is the main reason our congregation is the exception these days, rather than the rule. It’s very difficult to find time to get together when one of the band members is doing six or seven shows a week and they’re mostly in the evenings.
But an exception has been made, so we will be gathering on August 13 at the Jazzlab for the Melbourne Jazz Co-operative to give our one performance for the year, and I’m casting it as a kind of celebration of our longevity. I feel very fortunate to have been able to work with two so stimulating and so exceptionally capable musicians as Ben and Dave, and as I’ve said before, their capacity to receive my ideas and to work with them to create something of our own has been gratifying to a degree that I can barely measure. I’ll be embarrassing them with my thanks at the gig, but for the moment let me say just how grateful I am.
I am a Hitchcock tragic. I have almost all his movies on DVD, and I watch them regularly. I am fanatical about the people with whom he worked – for example, Cary Grant, of whom I’ve read two biographies in the last year or so, or Janet Leigh, or Anthony Perkins, or Grace Kelly, or Farley Granger, who lived until recently enough that I might even have met him, had I had the mettle – Alfred Hitchcock is, for all his faults, the kind of artist who inspires me for tenacity to purpose, tireless energy, and constant reinvention. I struggle to find the words to convey my admiration for his contribution.
Which is my favourite movie? A good question, that obviously you didn’t ask, but that you may have. And a very tough call. I love Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day in the later version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. To think that the kid in that picture is still alive makes my head spin. What if he had a party and invited Caroline from High Society and Arnie from The Trouble With Harry. Imagine the stories. But I digress. I confess, with the incomparably beautiful Montgomery Clift as as Fr Logan, or North by Northwest (it’s an airline, in case you’re wondering) with Eva Marie Saint, or Vertigo – frequently misunderstood but actually very, very wise – there are so many incredibly great pictures, and each one is an individual statement, a clocking of the moment, an artistic place-marking for which we have every reason to be continually grateful. Marnie, a most uncomfortable picture with Sean Connery wearing the golden bedtime-trousers. Young and Innocent, with Nova Pilbeam’s superb turn as Erica Burgoyne, or Dial M for Murder, with Grace Kelly and Ray Milland. Spellbound, with Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, Michael Chekhov and Leo G. Carroll. Carroll being that rare thing in the movie culture of that time: capable of playing both goody and baddy. To Catch a Thief, Notorious, Psycho. So many fabulous films.
One of the things I think about when I’m thinking about creative work is the manner in which when you’re committed to something, to completing a film or a painting or a piece of music, that is your exclusive focus for the moment. There was a time when Woody Allen was absolutely consumed by Hannah and Her Sisters, and that was taking all his attention. While Picasso worked on each ‘Weeping Woman’ it occupied him until it was finished. So too with Hitchcock; the manner of filming Psycho, as different as it was from North by Northwest was the occupation of a time, before it wrapped and he moved on to The Birds.
I mentioned Farley Granger. Star of two of Hitchcock’s pictures: Rope and Strangers on a train. Rope is particularly interesting firstly because it’s based on a real-life story, and secondly because it’s shot with single, complete reels of film. It’s said that when they got almost to the end of a take and something went wrong, so they had to go back to the beginning, everyone (in my memory, particularly James Stewart) got the shits. That’s understandable; these days CGI makes up for everything that humans can’t do, but then it was editing, and that wasn’t permitted if you’d decided to make the movie on individual pieces of film. When you watch Rope with this in mind, and see how the camera moves from one room to another, and the kitchen door swings – have you seen it? If not, hurry along now and have a look. I’ll wait.
Strangers on a Train (1951) is a macabre story of two fellows who meet on a long train journey. One of them is a tennis star hoping to move to a career in politics and to marry a senator’s daughter once he gets a divorce, and the other is a wastrel who hates his father. The latter hatches a plan wherein they can swap the murders they want committed. Bruno will kill Guy’s wife, and Guy can kill Bruno’s father. Guy leaves Bruno’s train compartment light-heartedly congratulating Bruno on his plan, but not imagining for a moment that it will go any further. Bruno however tracks Guy’s wife Miriam down, and kills her at an amusement park. Then he tries to get Guy to hold up his end of the bargain, which obviously he doesn’t want to do.
Robert Walker plays Bruno, and it is a stunning performance. Sadly Mr Walker died very shortly after the film was completed, but his work here is quite excellent. He is nasty and creepy and manipulative and actually rather scary. Farley Granger as Guy is also very fine; he deals with Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the woman he is hoping to marry, and her father, Senator Morton (Leo G. Carroll) delicately and his grim situation is entirely plausible. The pas de deux of Guy and Bruno is awkward and the feeling of entrapment surrounding Guy seems inexorable.
I have watched Strangers on a Train a great number of times, and always it satisfies. I have watched I confess a lot too, and North by Northwest and Psycho and Vertigo. It’s a tragic flaw that one often wants to live in the movie one is watching. One would love to have the chance to talk psychoanalysis with Ingrid Bergman, or to encourage Janet Leigh to postpone that shower. Woody Allen has spoken from experience about people whose emotional maturity was retarded because of early acquaintance with the cinema and a wishful longing to have everything work out the way it does there. I’m not deluded by happy endings; Steven Spielberg’s recent West Side Story is a masterpiece and there is no happiness at the end of that. I wrote already about La La Land and the contentious conclusion of that film has been problematic for quite a lot of people. Anyway [SPOILER ALERT] the final scene of ‘Strangers on a Train’ is funny, because someone recognises Guy, as happened at the picture’s outset, and tries to engage him in conversation; experience has shown him the preferability of letting this kind of attention go.
Anyway this Hitchcock rave is in the context of my next plan for a piece of creative work of my own. The music for Strangers on a Train was written by Dimitri Tiomkin, who scored several of Hitchcock’s pictures in the days before Hitchcock had met Bernard Herrmann. I confess and Dial M for Murder are among his scores for Hitchcock. Tiomkin was busy, highly paid, and much awarded, but nowadays if people think of music in the context of Hitchcock they tend to think of Bernard Herrmann because of films like Psycho and North by Northwest. I actually think (and I may have said this before) that there’s a PhD to be written on Herrmann’s thieving from the modernist orchestral canon; time and time again I’m listening to, say, a Sibelius symphony and I think, ‘hey, that’s from [Hitchcock movie score by Bernard Herrmann]!’
Tiomkin’s richly romantic music for Strangers on a Train is simply wonderful, and his motivic economy is a model of discipline and keen imagination. Here’s the theme, transcribed and played by me:
So what I want to do is to develop a piece for the double trio based on Tiomkin’s music for this movie. I want to use some of his music, and some of mine, and to develop music based on what he wrote, and to involve improvisation as well. It should be completely different from with whom you can be who you are, because I want my projects to differ from each other. But I love this band to death and I want to give it something new to do. The scores are in Los Angeles, but the word is that at least some of them have been digitised so I may not have to go there to see them. I’ve never until now had the slightest interest in going anywhere near America, and if I can be spared the journey I’ll happily go without it. But I’m writing about the project here so I can give myself the kick up the bum I need to get started on writing it.