Interview with Samuel Cottell

SC: Your new album, “Mooroolbark”, was inspired by the suburb in Melbourne where you grew up. Tell us about this inspiration and why you decide to write and record music about this place?

BM: Well the music itself wasn’t necessarily inspired by Mooroolbark but I dedicated the album to my hometown because it is, for many reasons, why I play music at all. It just so happened that a lot of inspiring musicians lived in Moorolbark while I was growing up there and my family was lucky enough to meet up with them. People like Michael Jordan, Len Barnard and his family, Archie Roach, Bruce Roland, Keith Hounslow ~ it was some strange gravity point and I was introduced to a lot of amazing music and creative things that really helped form me. I felt privileged to be listening to Pinetop Smith, Bessie Smith, Bud Powell and George Cables in Mooroolbark in the early 70s.

I recently recorded the album in Sydney at the ABC Ultimo studio with all my Australian cohorts and it’s the first all Australian album I’ve made for 15 years! It’s coming out on ABC Jazz on June 5.

It was so great to re-unite with all these imaginative players and see how far we have all come along the track. I realized that there was some full circle element to this recording and Moorolbark as a title would fit. The cover art has a tawny frogmouth owl with the world trade centre in water reflection morphing out of the owls plumage.

SC: Could you tell us about some of the tracks on your latest album and what they mean to you?

BM: Ok well, the first track “Nectar Spur” is directly related to the amazing experience of hearing Egberto Gismonte and Nana Vasconceles in1984 as a kid. I had hitch hiked up to Sydney from Melbourne and I found myself at the Basement, snuck in through the fire exit (I was underage) and was really changed as a result.

I wrote Nectar Spur in New York with my downstairs neighbours pounding on my floor and complaining. But as it came together I realized it was, like so many of my pieces, influenced by that one boiling hot night at the Basement.

I also sing on this one because I heard that…. and because I was punishing the people below me. There is another track on there called “Apple Tree”. This is a dedication to an amazing musician in New York named Peter Apfelbaum. He is a multi instrumentalist and the most natural musician I have ever known. I have had some piano lessons with him and this song kind of came out of his general vibe and aesthetic.

Then there is a song called Jendhi. It was written to describe my wife Jenn’s life and the changes and many colours and situations of her life. “February”  tries to express that feeling of a new year pulling you into it and before you know, it’s nearly over! The last section of this piece is supposed to be the loping and careening of October – November and another year approaching. “Poverty” is supposed to be about spirit vs. material wealth. It expresses the feeling of being broke but in other ways maybe it attempts talks about the magic of the present moment and the importance of forward motion. Looking ahead.

“Coast road” is a piece I found I had written years ago in a pile of manuscript. I revised it a little to discover I really like it. It was named after various drives I have taken down the great ocean road in Victoria. I used to own a Vanguard Six and I have such fond memories of that car and that road.

SC: You are touring to promote the release of the CD. Tell me about your ASIO ensemble and the musicians you work with in this group and perhaps how the ASIO name came about?

BM:  Well, I am actually just now thinking that the band name is #ASIO (Hashtag ASIO) ; its an acronym for AUSTRALIAN SYMBIOTIC IMPROVISERS ORBIT. ASIO was born in the studio when we recorded this album. If you come and hear us, you are in our Orbit and we are in yours so there is nothing covert.  When we play, we wear high viz outfits too. I like the idea that ASIO is high viz. I like the idea of meshing the endless onslaught of social media, memes and new protocols of internet behaviour with a secret organization. #ASIO features Julien ‘Assange’ Wilson on Tenor. Julien can really play a ballad and his sound is just warm and hearty.

Steve Mag is on guitar. I went to VCA around the same time as Mags and we have been good friends ever since. He played the be-jesus out of the guitar on the album but he is also happy to make one loud resonant noise and just bask in it beyond the uncomfortable and into the new.

Jonathan Zwartz plays bass. The first time I met him he handed me a double scotch of consolation… and we have been playing in various bands ever since. He is a brilliant musician and composer and he really helped me shape the album.

Simon Barker plays drums and was given secrets in Korea that continue to lift him up and centre him with a powerful core. He has grown so much as a player in the last 5 years and its just so very apparent and refreshing. The secret he was given is no secret btw it’s just that he understands it. New York percussionist Mino Cinelu plays some extra percussion on the album too. He is a master percussionist , a living legend ~ he really added some zing and it is a treat to have him on there.

SC: Having made NY your home since 1997, you regularly return to Australia to collaborate and perform in a variety of settings. How important is it, for you, to return to Australia to undertake creative projects with fellow Australian musicians?

BM: Well I am an Australian but I also feel music is music and people are people. I chose to live in New York to learn and I have learnt a great deal, but I also come home and learn and play and keep connected to things in Australia because I can. That is a blessing. I suppose what I’m saying is, creative projects themselves are what is most important and I am grateful to be a apart of them wherever I am.

SC: What is it like, for you, performing in Australia, as opposed to New York and do you find that there are big differences between the two in terms of performing and making a career in jazz?  

BM: Well in my experience, all people have different ways of expressing themselves everywhere. In parts of Europe you get no response until the end of the concert. In Japan, polite clapping means raucous clapping? I once played in Compton, LA at Billy Higgins club called :The World Stage” and that was the warmest reception I have ever had. In New York it depends where you are playing and with what band. If I was playing with Fred Wesley it would always be a riot because that music is an unstoppable formula. Gary Bartz too is like a cult hero and rightfully so. When we play people genuinely love it and make that love known.

I just played at Bennetts Lane in Melbourne and people really seemed to enjoy it. So in terms of performing it just depends on what context you are in. But generally I have found there is a great understanding in both Australia and the US of what’s going on on the bandstand.

I think it was Miles Davis who said to never underestimate an audience. They always know what they like and if you slump they slump right along with you. If you are having a great night they feel it and you can feel them feeling it and the circle continues.

In terms of making a career there are also so many variables. I mean there are way more players in New York and that means there are more opportunities to learn and be challenged. I think that both places have their benefits and drawbacks but the music business itself is currently in the process of weeding out those who really love and need to play music from those who kind of want to. I think it will be fascinating to see what musicians and music evolves from these difficult times. Often older players give you the advice “just keep playing” and it might be the wisest advice there is?

SC: Congratulations on receiving the Peggy Glanville-Hicks residency for 2015. What do you plan to do during the residency and are you looking forward to spending such an extended period of time in Australia?

BM: I am doing multiple things while here at the residency. I am writing some solo piano music and practicing a lot;  more than I have for a long while.

I am soon going to be setting up mics and a recorder in the house and will record solo piano throughout the year. There is a beautiful Stuart and Sons grand here and I will be able to capture a lot of moments that one gets into alone in their own place. That is a rare treat. I am finishing an anti-pop album that sounds very polished and pop in a subversive way but is very dark in it’s subject matter. This has been a two year labour of love and I am pretty excited about it. The cover art features a painting by the artist Bansky. I contacted him and let him know that I didn’t want to licence it but that I would be publicly stealing it.

I am also writing a commissioned piece for the Monash Art Ensemble which will be premiered sometime in October. Then there are all sorts of other pieces that have been coming up and I am happy to watch them bloom at whatever pace they require. It’s a fantastic thing to have enough time to actually have a look around inside your own music and develop it. For so many years I have just had to show up unprepared and throw paint against the wall. What stuck is my back catalogue! With this residency I can refine things and try to grasp them more clearly. For example I am starting to notice a strange intervallic thread in some of my writing. It can be heard at the end of the song “Jendhi” and in the piece I am writing for the MAE. I am following it and letting it be whatever it is? and trying to be as open as possible to it.

ASIO played some of the new music for the first time in Melbourne last weekend and it really went over well. I am very grateful to have been through hell and high water and paid a fair few dues and to have arrived at a place where I can just write new music and perform it refine it. I can ask for anything more than that!

Thanks Peggy!

Barney is performing around Australia, New Zealand, USA and Europe.

Tour dates and details can be found on his website.

Samuel Cottell Jazz Journalist/WriterSamuel Cottell is freelance jazz journalist and writer based in Sydney. He currently writes for several jazz publications and is completing a PhD researching the music of Tommy Tycho, at Sydney University. When he is not writing about jazz he plays piano and writes music arrangements.