What is Jazz now? And where can you find it?
These are questions that SIMA, the Sydney Improvised Music Association, is seeking to answer with a series of concerts this month by way of the Sydney Winter Jazz Fest.
The 2021 festival was cut short because of Covid and lockdowns but this year it is full steam ahead with concerts at the Opera House, Mary’s Underground and Palmer and Co in Abercrombie Lane.
On Saturday July 16, in the Opera House’s atmospheric Utzon Room, “The Intimacy of Jazz Now” will see songstress Martha Marlow alongside legendary pianist Chris Abrahams (The Necks) presenting an exclusive preview of her forthcoming album Queen of the Night.
Marlow and Abrahams are ambivalent about what jazz is now but have clear perspectives on where it can be found … or not.
Marlow said she had seen changes that made it difficult to pursue music as a career. “The whole industry had been suffering and then along came Covid So it is good that SIMA is helping musicians perform and earn a living.”
She said Covid had a huge impact on the whole industry of workers, from make-up artists to musicians and managers.
“It will take a long time to recover. We need bodies like SIMA more than ever who have musicians’ interests at heart. In SIMA we have a face that represents jazz in its many facets, including original music, and people like (program director) Zoe Hauptmann creating a place for women.”
Abrahams said the term jazz was now applied to things that in the past wouldn’t be called jazz. So it was hard to say what it was.
Marlow wasn’t sure that her own music could be classified as jazz. But she thought it was wonderful that SIMA was including her in performances at the Opera House.
“It’s a beautiful venue. It’s iconic,” she said.
Abrahams said he really enjoyed playing there. “The sound of the Utzon Room will be fantastic. The piano is amazing and the room looks out over the harbour.”
However both agreed that Sydney made it difficult for people to open jazz venues now.
“I remember the Paradise Jazz Cellar in Kings Cross,” Abrahams said. “It was a paid gig where I could play whatever I wanted. That sort of thing doesn’t happen in Sydney now — or probably anywhere in the world anymore.”
“Places like the Foundry (in Harris Street, Ultimo) are incredible and there are some great house concerts, like one fantastic place where you pay a donation to see a great gig.
“Peter Rechniewski (former Artistic Director and co-founder of SIMA) started the Foundry. It’s individuals who make things like that happen,” said Abrahams.
Marlow agreed, mentioning Phoenix in Central Park (a performance space in Chippendale opened by philanthropist Judith Neilson).
“Judith and (creative director) Beau Neilson are some of the only people who pay musicians well. They got a lot of people through a difficult time. Having people like that is extraordinary.
Abrahams said it was a philanthropic model that was working well. And it was an amazing venue.
He said people like Cameron Undy, behind the now defunct 505 in Newtown, had also been invaluable.
Queen of the Night
Marlow, last year nominated for an Aria award and an Australian Music Prize award and winner of an Australian Women in Music Emerging Artist award, has been described as one of the year’s best kept secrets.
Modest about her growing fame, she said she still felt like a secret.
“Living with a serious immune condition, it is rare for me to venture out. That’s why it’s been good for me to work with Chris. It’s an inner world; not performing to huge audiences.”
Abrahams, on the other hand is well established, with dozens of albums, solo and in collaboration, to his name.
Richard Williams concluded his book The Blue Moment: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Jazz with a section on Abrahams’ experimental trio The Necks, saying he heard in their music a direct lineage from the jazz classic Kind of Blue, and he compared Abrahams’ piano strumming to that of seminal jazz pianist Bill Evans.
Abrahams said Kind of Blue and another Miles Davis album, In a Silent Way, were a huge influence on him.
“Being a jazz pianist, it’s hard to ignore that influence, the influence of some of the greatest musicians ever. Though I hope there are some differences.”
He said when he heard Cookin’ with Miles Davis when he was 14 he had never heard anything so extraordinary in his life.
Marlow said she loved Sketches of Spain. “How Miles plays on that is incredible. I’m definitely carrying the baton.”
She said, “It’s been lovely to collaborate with Chris. He is also a writer, so we are close in many ways. Poignant lyrics with harmony and melody. I enjoyed exploring that. There are great moments when it comes together, when it suddenly leaps forward.”
Abrahams said it was a true synthesis: “Not necessarily exactly what each of us intended but it’s together. A mystery. Bigger than the sum of the parts.”
He said, “It was an incredible experience to write something, an instrumental, and it comes back magically and suddenly there is a song. It is an incredibly positive experience.”
For her part, Marlow said it was fantastic to get an email from Abrahams. “It’s like Christmas morning. And then there’s a song that settles and gets to where it wants to be.”
At the Opera House they will be previewing songs from the yet-to-be-recorded Queen of the Night, named after a plant that blooms only at night and whose flowers wilt before dawn.
“It is an extraordinary flower,” said Marlow, “suggesting the transient nature of time — something existing in a moment.”
It’s a beautiful flower,” said Abrahams, “Intriguing and melancholic. Something enormous that happens in darkness and fades so quickly.”
They didn’t think their music was necessarily dark or melancholic, however. “It’s more melodic and harking back to the ’60s and’ 70s era of song writing, with lots of major seventh chords.”
Marlow said she was glad to be part of the Winter Jazz Fest, playing with Abrahams, who said it would be lovely to play the music live in a concert setting to determine parts of the songs … “almost like Bacharach”.
He said, while he was looking forward to recording and to getting definitive versions of the songs, performing live and experimenting to let the songs take shape was one of the lovely things about it.
“The more you do something, trust is built up and worry dissipates. That’s why it’s important for people to play live as much as possible, even if some great music has been made spontaneously.”
Discover all the artists at Sydney Winter Jazz Fest here: https://winterjazzfest.com.au/events