On who you might meet busking in Central Park
An interview with Adrian Cunningham for Jazz Australia.
JA: What prompted you to leave Australia and move to New York in 2008?
AC: In 2007 (a year before moving), I visited NY, esentially as a tourist, and of course to check out the music scene and get a few lessons. When I returned home to Sydney, I was so inspired. I came to the realisation that I would never play at that level living in Australia. (NB: I had to look up the spelling of realisation. The Yanks spell it with a z. I’ve been here so long, I’m starting to forget my Queen’s English.)
JA: How were those first years in New York, trying to establish yourself in one of the most competitive music scenes in the world?
AC: Oh yes, it’s tough, yet inspiring. Making the most of every opportunity, and following through with every contact you meet. I used to busk in Central Park 3 or 4 days a week, with fellow musicians. I had a great time, and we met some amazing people while busking, not in the least meeting Alec Baldwin, Owen Wilson, and even Keith Jarrett! It’s quite a surreal experience playing in Central Park for tips in front of Keith Jarrett, let me tell you.
JK: Financially how difficult is it for a young musician, new to the New York scene, to survive in such an expensive city – and any advice for young Australian musicians wanting to make that pilgrimage?
AC:Firstly, get used to some shitty food (am I allowed to say shitty??). Secondly, bring some bloody warm clothes, because the winters here will suck the life out of you. I used to live two blocks from the beach, now my view is my neighbour’s brick wall. Ah, the price of sacrificing for one’s art! (NB: I had to look up the spelling of neighbour. Damn this American spelling!)
JK: How long did it take you to break into the scene there and start playing regular gigs?
AC: I was fortunate, being a good clarinet player, of finding work very quickly in the traditional jazz scene with a whole younger generation of bad ass musicians reviving it. (My US spelling of ass was deliberate).
In fact, in my first week here, I was looking for a room to rent on Craigslist (US version of Gumtree). I looked at a place in downtown Brooklyn- hugely overpriced, however the guy living there was a musician. We got to talking, and he invited me to sit in on his gig that Saturday night. I did just that, and subsequently joined the band, and that gig became my regular Saturday night gig! Gotta love this city..
JA: Who were some of the musicians you played with in those first two or three years in New York?
AC: I’ve been fortunate enough to play with some wonderful people in all sorts of situations pretty quickly. I’ve been lucky to play Montreux Jazz festival 2 years in a row with Sweet Georgia Brown, an amazing blues singer. Not internationally known, but a local legend. To work with her has been a great education for me on how to engage with your audience. She’s a master.
There’s also those surreal moments, like doing a gig with trumpet legend Lew Soloff (you might recognise him from the amazing solo on Blood Sweat and Tears’s Spinning Wheel.) It was a big band gig, and we each got paid $30, including Lew.
JA: Was there a certain breakthrough period that elevated your career to the point it has reached today?
AC:I would have to say, it is a series of small steps successes. Each year provides more opportunities and forges new relationships. But if I get a big breakthrough in the future, I’ll send you an email. Or I’ll get my publicist to do it for me. Because I’ll be too famous.
JA: Tell us about some of the club shows and festivals you have played in recent years.
AC: I’ve had some wonderful performance highlights in the last few years. I got to play Carnegie Hall last year which was an amazing experience, not in the least because I performed one of my own tunes with the The New York Concerti Sinfonietta. I also play a few times a year at Dizzy’s club (Lincoln Centre), where the view is almost as good as the music. And when I’m in town, you can catch me most Wednesday’s at Birdland in midtown playing the music of Louis Armstrong.
JA: Your latest album was recorded in a famous West Coast studio. Tell us about you how that came about and the musicians you play with on that session.
AC: What an experience that was! I guess it all started at Vail Jazz festival last year, where I was afforded the opportunity to play a set with Jeff Hamilton and John Clayton- two absolutely swinging legends. Arbors, my record label, approached me a month or so later about the possibility of doing a second album for the label, and those two gents were the first names that popped in my head. Ted Rosenthal is a legend of the NY jazz scene, and I met him earlier that year when he was the featured soloist with a big band that I play with.
With John and Jeff both based in LA, it made sense for myself and Ted to fly over to them. United Studios in Hollywood has an amazing history, with the likes of Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Buddy Rich, Michael Jackson having recorded there.
I emailed them saying if they wanted to take down Sinatra’s photo and replace it with mine, that would be ok. I’m still waiting for a response..
JA: You will be bringing New York piano player Alberto Pibiri for your forthcoming Australian tour. Tell us a little about Alberto.
AC: Alberto is an amazing musician, originally from Sardinia, Italy, and moved to NY not long after I did. He’s been doing wonderful things since moving here, including working with legendary vocalist Sheila Jordan (she used to sing with Bird. BIRD!!) Alberto and I have worked a lot together in recent years, and I’m looking forward to introducing him to Australian ears. He also makes great pasta. But I don’t think he’ll have enough for everyone.
JA: What can Australian audiences expect from your Sydney and Melbourne shows this time around?
AC: We will be releasing and playing the new music from the new album (did I mention I have a new album?)- which will be full to the brim with swinging grooving jazzy goodness. I might even tell a few jokes.
JA: What lies ahead for you in the coming years – will you stay in New York or possibly return to Australia on a long term basis?
AC: I love coming ‘home’ to Oz. All my family and friends are here. The life, and place that shaped who I am. Professionally speaking, it would be hard to return, and put aside all the opportunities that I’ve worked hard for, not to mention the ones that may be around the corner. But damn I sure do miss a good meat pie.