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Australian jazz - innovative

A photograph of the Bernie McGann Group, 1997.

Marvellous Melbourne Jazz Festival - Bernie McGann Group - Bernie McGann, sax; John Pochee , drum; Chuck Yates, keyboard; Jeff Kluke, bass. South Bank, Australia Day, Jan. 1997. Photograph courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an12549243-172.

Definitions of jazz are often controversial but 'there are elements that most jazz styles have in common - improvisation and the jazz swing feeling'. To improvise is to compose and perform simultaneously.

An Australian jazz sound has developed through a practice of innovation where performers improvised within particular jazz styles, as well as created original sounds by mixing jazz styles. Innovative Australian jazz is contributing a definitive edge to Australian music. Australian musicians are also helping to contribute to define 'Nu-jazz'.

Early improvisation

Improvisation is the practice of spontaneously varying individual parts. Improvisation most likely developed in jazz by the 1920s due to boredom on the part of players with fixed routines, the need to learn new material without recourse to sheet music, a continuation of the African traditions for spontaneous alterations, unbridled creativity, and longer dances, which led to solos to allow the horn players time to rest their lips.

The single player who stands out in jazz history is New Orleans born trumpeter Louis Armstrong who is seen as the most influential, having been imitated by saxophonists, trombonists and pianists as well as trumpeters. Armstrong had a large tone, wide range, better command of the trumpet and was one of the first 'combo' players to effectively demonstrate solo improvisation.

Later brass and horn players who significantly influenced improvisation were Bix Beiderbecke, who played in a cool, thoughtful style in the 1920s, and the horn player Sidney Bechet, who moved jazz horn to a dramatic solo style. Bechet influenced Johnny Hodges and John Coltrane who developed impressive timing of improvised ornamentations.

Free Jazz, Fusion and Groove

In the 1960s, 'Free Jazz' abandoned chord patterns and sometimes rhythm and melody on which to improvise. This style has dominated much of what has happened since then. Since the 1960s, 'Fusion' blended jazz and rock in about 1968 and became popular in the 1970s. 'Groove' was a marriage with 1960s soul music and re-surfaced as Acid Jazz in the 1990s. From 2000 onwards 'Groove' became a hip version of 'Fusion'! Add samples to Groove and it becomes 'Nu-jazz'.

A photograph of Dale Barlow with a saxophone.

Dale Barlow with saxophone. Photograph courtesy of Dale Barlow.

Australian jazz innovation

Mixing jazz styles

A number of Australian players are well known internationally for mixing jazz styles. Jackie Orszaczky came out to Australia from his native Hungary in the early 1970s, and traced blues links in Bulgarian, Hungarian, and Chinese folk traditions. Jackie founded a new soul funk/groove, rhythm and blues band in 1994 with jazz vocalist Tina Harrod called the Grandmasters - touring in Australia and overseas.

In the 1990s, d.i.g. (Directions in Groove) toured successfully internationally in the UK and Japan with an original sound that was a mix of acid jazz, jazz funk and groove.

The practice of Australian jazz bands mixing jazz styles has contributed to Australian jazz being seen as innovative, fresh and original, reflecting on the diverse ethnic rhythms that are part of Australia's musical landscape and connecting to the dance rhythms of the Caribbean, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere.

The Necks and The Catholics

Sydney based band, The Necks, Chris Abrahams (piano), Tony Buck (drums), and Lloyd Swanton (bass) mix avant-garde minimalist, ambient, and jazz styles to offer Australian music that, according to the Age (13 Jan 2005), 'conjures clouds of resonance, wind and rain, grand passion, and a strong sense of foreboding before subsiding to set the listener down on a serene plain'.

The Necks have contributed to over 150 Australian albums and this distinction has contributed to a defining edge in Australian music.

Rolling Stone wrote of The Catholics (led by Lloyd Swanton) in the context of Australian new jazz:

The richness, diversity and accessibility of The Catholics suffuses every track... no written description can do justice to this music. If you've heard the whisper, which is now becoming a roar, that [is] the new Australian jazz.

Improvisation within jazz styles - Australian jazz greats

Australian jazz innovation, expressed by improvising within jazz styles, is represented in the work of artists like alto saxophonists Bernie McGann, pianist Mike Nock and saxophonists Dale Barlow and Sandy Evans.

All of these Australian jazz artists are achievers on the world stage, playing at the prestigious Chicago and Berlin Jazz Festivals. These performers have won 9 Mo Awards and 7 Australian Record Industry Awards between them, as well as Australia Council for the Arts fellowships and awards for their outstanding contributions to Australian music.

Bernie McGann

Bernie McGann is Australia's foremost jazz saxophonist, playing in Sydney since the 1950s. His forty year plus career parallels the most important developments in modern jazz. Bernie McGann is regarded as 'forging a bold, exciting, freewheeling approach to modern jazz with his mix of original compositions and marvellous reworkings of standards and lesser known songs'.

McGann's long established trio includes Lloyd Swanton, bass and John Poche, drums has recently been expanded with trumpeter Warwick Alder. Pianist Paul Grabowsky, says of McGann as one of the truly great saxophonists of all time:

[Bernie McGann] is one of the most important artists Australia has produced in the 20th century. I think he stands alongside Patrick White and Fred Williams as one of the people who most beautifully express the Australian condition in their work.

A photograph of the Mike Nock Trio, 2006.

Hamish Tam, The Mike Nock Trio: Mike Majkowski (bass), Mike Nock, James Waples (drums), 2006. Courtesy of the Mike Nock Trio.

Mike Nock

In the 1960s jazz pianist Mike Nock led the seminal jazz-rock group The Fourth Way, before spending twenty-five years working in the USA with many of the world's top musicians such as Coleman Hawkins, Yusef Lateef, Dione Warwick, and Michael Brecker.

Mike Nock is recognised internationally with three U.S. National Endowment for the Arts fellowships as well as being awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit, O.N.Z.M. for services to jazz in 2003. From 1996 to 2001 he was music director of Naxos/Jazz records, overseeing the production of more than 70 critically acclaimed jazz CDs, from all corners of the world.

Fred Bouchard in Down Beat (USA) wrote:

Nock's ringing iconoclasm pervades all his music, taps a deep well of melody that transcends jazz and informs and ignites his every encounter.

Sandy Evans

A photograph of Sandy Evans, 1990.

David Franklin, Portrait of Sandy Evans, 1990, photograph: gelatin silver. Photograph courtesy of Renate Franklin.

Sandy Evans is widely recognised as one of the leading saxophonists (tenor and soprano) and composers for contemporary jazz in Australia. She leads the Sandy Evans Trio, co-leads the internationally acclaimed Clarion Fracture Zone and was a founding member of The Catholics as well as the ten piece ensemble, Ten Part Invention (1986), an innovative contemporary jazz ensemble. Sandy is the winner of the Inaugural Bell Award for Australian Jazz Musician of The Year, 2003.

Dale Barlow

Dale Barlow is widely recognised as a tenor saxophonist and composer, highly regarded as a 'neo-bop' player. As a composer he has written for large and small ensemble, film and television, and recorded extensively. After completing his musical studies at the NSW conservatorium, he moved to New York where he studied saxophone with George Coleman and Dave Liebman. Dale was a member of legendary American groups The Cedar Walton Quartet, and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.

Since returning to Australia, Dale has received numerous awards and accolades including: Album of the Year/ Jazz performer of the year/ International Artist of the Year/ Bicentennial Artist of the Year, and four Mo Awards. For the last few years, Dale has toured as a member of Billy Cobham's Band.

Australians defining 'Nu-jazz'

'Nu-jazz' style includes electronic and digital forms of jazz and sampling. Emerging artists developing 'Nu-jazz' include The Assumptions Trio, a Melbourne based trio, with Julien Wilson (tenor saxophone), Will Guthrie (drums) and Steve Magnuson (guitar), presenting an ambient-free-jazz-power sound. The Assumptions have been hailed as one of the most significant new groups to emerge in recent times - three times winners of the National Jazz Awards.


Another emerging group is the Andrew Robson Trio, Hamish Stuart (drums), Steve Elphick (double bass), and Andrew Robson (alto saxophonist and composer), which performed at the prestigious Berlin Jazz Festival in 2004.

The fact that the Now Now Festival, a six-night festival of improvised music held in Sydney, is celebrating its fifth year in 2007, indicates the strength of improvised jazz in Australia, part of the burgeoning festival scene of 'Jazz Australia'.

Useful links

Jazz information

Jazz in Australia

Australian jazz festivals - modern and mainstream

Jazz societies and associations

Last updated: 7th November 2007
Creators: Kathryn Wells

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