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.