Another Australian Jazz icon to appear at the Umbria Jazz Melbourne Festival ’05 is Bell Award winner, Allan Browne.

Jasmine Crittenden talks to this inspirational musician about his music, his passion and his inspiration.

JC: So what have you got organized for the Festival?

AB: Well, I’m working with the quintet, which is working at the Festival obviously. We’ve just been working on a whole album of new material, which we’ve got ready. Our last album was recorded in March last year, which is quite a long time ago really. We might do a couple of the older things, just because, well, because we like them. But we’ve got a couple of hours of new material. Everyone in the band’s written something. So, there’s a couple of mine. I usually write the simple things, where they have a chance to blow.

The boys, (laughs) they’ve been to the College of the Arts, and they can write sophisticated things. But they can make something out of my tunes because they’re great players. There’s also a couple of David’s, a couple of Geoff’s, one of Eugene’s and there’s a couple of beautiful new ballads.

JC: What else have you been up to lately?

AB: I’m also working on some music – a whole album of music, which I hope to have at Wangaratta and record for the ABC, using a lot of the quintet and Stephen Grant and some people I’ve been using in the New Orleans band. So, sort of a mixture of both bands and doing some music inspired by the Ken Slessor poem Five Bells, which is one of my favourite poems. It’s a great Australian poem and it was written in the late ‘20s, early ‘30s, so it suits very much the New Orleans approach. But it will be all new material. It’s very basic, because I’m a basic writer, I’m not able to write very sophisticated things, but they’re usually good things as vehicles for jazz, and that’s the main thing I guess (laughs). So that’s what I’m working on and doing Bennett’s Lane on Mondays and last night I played in the big band at Dizzy’s. I do that regularly, for practice, and I was very excited (laughs), to practise my reading. So that’s the sort of thing I’m doing.

JC: What do you most like about playing jazz?

AB: I really like playing and my whole attitude to playing jazz is that if I couldn’t play jazz, I wouldn’t be a drummer. I’m not a drummer. I’m a jazz player. I like to improvise and I like to go out at night with people who I work with and make music – collective improvisation. To me, that’s my dream.
It doesn’t always happen. As you can imagine, I probably spend at least one or two nights working with singers and stuff, which is fine, but it’s not a collective improvised gig. So, it’s all a means to an end I guess. When I was sixteen, I heard the George Lewis band, which was the greatest New Orleans band that ever played, and they were on the Blue Note Label – they were the only New Orleans band on that very prestigious label and they were all improvising together. It was so fantastic – I just wanted to do it.

JC: So was that album what really inspired you?

AB: It certainly inspired me initially. By the early ‘70s, I was studying more modern drumming. I’d been twelve years playing, or trying to play, like Baby Dodds, the drummer with Louis Armstrong in the ‘20s – the first great drummer in jazz. And I just copied him – I’ve even got a drum kit like his, you know, a weird kit (laughs). So that’s my grounding and that makes me different because by the time I get into the present day music, I’ve still got all that background that I can’t get rid of. But I don’t want to anyway.

It makes me a bit different. It makes a lot of things hard though. By about the early ‘70s, I started to hear Philly Joe and Miles and then I heard Tony Williams, and he just turned me around completely. I’ve been obsessed with Tony Williams for years.

So that’s where I’m at. I’ll never play like him (laughs), but I’m inspired.  For me, I believe that Baby Dodds and Tony Williams were exactly the same.  There were a lot of people in the middle that weren’t. Like, if you’re talking drumming, Philly Joe was a very controlled drummer in his own way.

He was very straight – he played a lot of twos and fours, almost rhythm and blues drumming. And I think that, at that stage, that’s what Miles wanted, and I love it. He’s so superb at what he does. But it’s not the same thing.

Baby Dodds played with Sidney Bechet or Louis Armstrong and it was all improvised from the beginning to the end, the whole band. And the same thing happens with Tony Williams, with Herbie and Ron Carter and Miles, you know.

So that’s what excites me. And I guess I’m most excited by swing, I mean swing time, because it’s the most flexible time, really. I’m really lucky because I play a lot with younger people. I play with Aaron Choulai in a trio and the people in the quintet are people that I’ve known since they were in their teens, nearly all of them, except Geoff Hughes.

JC: Could you tell us who’s in the quintet?

AB: There’s Eugene Ball, and I played with him when he was a teenager; David Rex, I played with him when he was fifteen or sixteen and all the time since, off and on; and Geoff Hughes is a wonderful guitarist, who I’ve been playing with since he came to Australia from New Zealand and Nick Haywood, I’ve been playing with since he went to the College of the Arts. But Nick’s in China, so Gary Costello’s doing the Festival gig. Nick’s setting up a music course in Peking. It’s a big deal, so he’s away for two months. So hopefully we’ll all be over there, working and playing and making a fortune (laughs). Oh, I don’t know. If I can get in, I might never come home again.

Anyway, all the boys have grown up now. It’s great that we have a band. Although we haven’t played as a band all that time, we’ve played together in various configurations for many years.

JC: And you’ve watched them grow up.

AB: And they’ve watched me grow old (laughs). So that’s the story. None of them played with me for about four or five years, because I was really ill.
It’s only been three years that we’ve been back again. So that’s that.

I’m working regularly with Andrea Keller in a trio; Aaron; this New Orleans band that I have; and from time to time with Paul Grabowsky. We work together because we’ve had a very long relationship – twenty years. That was probably the most important thing I did after I finished playing New Orleans jazz. That was really important for me, because I learnt a lot working with Paul. I learnt about being myself and I learnt that I could do things that I didn’t think I could, because he has such a positive attitude. He just believes you can do anything. He’s very inspirational and charismatic, Paul, and he’s also a fantastic musician. But all of them are- the quintet guys are all fantastic and, really, they’re becoming high profile. They won’t want to work with me soon (laughs). They’re all fantastic, everyone. I’m so lucky.

And I’m lucky to have the residency at Bennett’s Lane. I’ve had that for years. I have whomever I’m working with, and it depends on who’s around. For example, at the moment, I’m doing a lot with Andrea and Tamara because we’re working on a recording, so we play a lot. It really is the most important thing, for me, and it’s only my opinion…When I listen to music, through history, through the several hundred years of jazz, all the bands I love are working bands. I’m not heavily into bands that get together and just play jam sessions and stuff. It never is memorable, because that dialogue can’t happen until you actually know people. That’s the magic of Miles Davis because he had one band after had another which had that ability to talk to each other in that very intense, intimate way.

I guess that’s what I aspire to, in my own way, and the hardest thing in Australia is that, to make a living, you’ve got to play with all different bands. It’s very hard and when we compare ourselves to Miles, he’s made these records that are sublime, but when they made them they’d been on the road for six months, every night, which is something we wouldn’t even know about here. Some people manage to do it, but not many. The time I was working most in a band was when I was with Vince Jones, because in the ‘80s we used to do three or four gigs a week. So that’s what I aspire to, and having Bennett’s Lane means that you don’t make a lot of money, but you have somewhere where you can work on things and get bands happening and get the dialogue happening in public. Rehearsals are one thing but playing in public is different. So that’s one of my theories (laughs).

JC: How long’s the quintet been together in this format?

AB: Since January last year, when David Rex came back and I formed the band immediately.

JC: What about your passion for literature? I hear you’re a bit of a poet.

AB: Well, I write some verse. Whether it’s poetry or not (laughs), I don’t know. I’ve been doing it for years and years and I do it, usually on record covers. That’s the only place I get it published. Jane from SIMA in Sydney had some idea that someone wanted to bring out a book but I haven’t got it all together yet. I will. I tend to get involved in music and forget about those things. They make me a bit tense. But I really am an autodidact. When I went to school, I was playing music every night of the week and I failed everything. I didn’t get my year twelve because I was playing four nights a week. So since the early seventies, I’ve been reading all the time. But I do take a different slant on things because I’m not guided. I’ll read my way through a library of books. There’s very little I haven’t read from the nineteenth and the early twentieth century. I’m not really into the contemporary things yet, because I want to know about the old things. That’s my plan.

JC: Do you have any favourite writers?

AB: Yeah, Proust is my favourite. The greatest thing I did was read Remembrance of Things Past. It was a truly beautiful journey. It took a year. It’s a book that’s immensely funny but also thought provoking for me.

I’d never read anything that was so intense and so long. I mean it’s 3600 pages. It truly changed a lot of things for me. I’ll start reading it again.

JC: Are you often inspired by poetry?

AB: Yeah, one of my favourite poets is E.E. Cummings. He inspires me in all sorts of funny ways. Strange ways. Well, he’s a very spiritual poet in his own way and that relates to me.

The Allan Browne Quintet plays Umbria Jazz, Melbourne on Friday, May 13th, at Stonnington Chapel off Chapel. For more information