“The more that I write, the more that I want to play, and the more that I play the more that I want to write.”

JK: Would you like to tell us a little background about how you came to be studying in York?

RK: In 2010 I was awarded the Lord Mayor’s Fellowship for Young and Emerging Artists to undertake postgraduate study in Europe. There were several options and institutions that interested me but I chose the University of York in England because of the faculty and their open minded approach to music. I wanted to spend time with the pianist John Taylor and the saxophonist Julian Arguelles while also pursuing my compositional interests.

The good thing about this music department, as opposed to a dedicated Conservatorium, was that it didn’t matter what discipline you were involved with, all the groups from early music, contemporary classical and jazz ensembles were open to you. I really enjoyed this atmosphere and that music research and so many musical styles were accessible and open to anyone in a creative way.

JK: Did you find many musical differences in the jazz scene over there?  If so, what were they?

RK: I only spent one year in England and completed a Masters Degree in this time so I unfortunately didn’t get to explore and take advantage of the scene as much as I would have liked.

York is a very small town in Yorkshire and is not particularly renowned for it’s thriving jazz scene.

The great thing about York and England is that it’s not very far (by Australian standards) to get to other cities. I could be in Edinburgh, or London in 2 hours and there were clubs and venues in plenty of towns and villages along the way. This was great because it meant that there was always a lot of movement and international acts passing through somewhere nearby. I found that this made me feel like I was connected or close to connected with things that were moving around at an international level. This is different in Brisbane and Australia due to the logistics of both getting here (Australia from anywhere else) and then touring around the other cities and States; there isn’t the same creative traffic here.

One thing that I did find surprising was that the undergraduates at my university were learning Kenny Wheeler tunes as opposed to conventional Jazz Standards. The seemed to imply that there was at least an equally relevant strand of jazz material that could be taught instead of the more orthodox approach of learning standards and old Broadway tunes.

I went to a few jazz and music festivals in England and Sweden which was very interesting to experience. I found there to be a different appreciation and tradition of attending music in these places that I really liked. Events like the London Jazz Festival, The Stockholm Jazz Festival and the Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music were all well attended and often presented a great and diverse selection of music and ensembles ranging from very user-friendly to extremely challenging performances.

JK: What was the most inspiring element of your fellowship?

RK: In addition to the large amount of music that I experienced, there was so much that was on offer and accessible through art galleries, museums, festivals, literature, lessons and conferences. It will be a long time before I have worked through and assimilated everything that I have brought back with me.

Detaching myself from everything that I had built up here in Brisbane, moving to two European countries and reassessing what I want to pursue and why was a very wholesome thing to do. It really helped to solidify what I want to be doing and what it is that’s important to me.

I owe very much to the music of Kenny Wheeler so it was also really special for me to spend time with John Taylor and Julian Arguelles, surrounding myself with that language.

JK: Is this the first time you have written for string instruments? What were the challenges of working with non traditional jazz instrumentation?

RK: This project was the first time that I had written for string instruments. My sister is a violinist so I have grown up hearing what can be challenging and what can work well on a string instrument.

Using classical instrumentalists and improvising musicians together can be tricky. There are obviously things that each side does well which are normally outside the skill set of the other group.

There are surprisingly few albums that I find successfully reconcile these differing demands.

I was very wary of creating a jazz album with a token string quartet just playing string pads or trying to swing or on the other end; have two improvising musicians butchering something that could have been much nicer without improvisation. In various attempts to avoid these traps I tried to integrate what the strings do well and present this in a way that would allow for improvisation and vice versa; imagine what could work and be fun to solo over and create that musical situation. To do this I studied all sorts of music and writing which was a very rewarding experience in itself. I then spent time considering how I could best appropriate things.

It was really fun designing the environment that I (or Steve) might like to hear and respond to in an improvising section. This is nothing new as it is essential for large ensemble writing but it felt very different with this project, as I had to notate everything and specify exactly what musical activity would happen. It was a concentrated study into some of the biggest issues in music for me; how to find a balance between contrast, coherence and interest…

I like recordings where the distinction between the written and improvised material can be hard to determine. I wanted to create different environments for the improvisers to react to. A string quartet is capable of so many different colours and textures and I wanted to be a part of that.

JK: How did the string players take to improvisation?

RK: I try to find a balance between being descriptive enough to provide direction and context while being open enough to allow the players to feel like they can bring something different to each performance. Although the performers that I was working with were all selected because they regularly perform in a variety of genres and are accustomed to listening past the written notes, nearly everything on their parts was notated.

There is one part where I do give the strings freedom to improvise from a set series of notes in Introduction to The Sweetness of Things Half Remembered and after a few attempts the performers gained more confidence and perspectives on what could work.

There are other parts that are quite open in terms of how to phrase and shape the music but the string players haven’t improvised beyond these capacities (yet).

JK: Do you have plans to tour with this ensemble?

RK: I am currently in the process of planning interstate performances of this music. I would love to tour all 6 people but it might get tricky so it may be an abbreviated tour of Steve Newcomb and I performing with local string quartets.

JK: What next?

RK: I’m looking forward to getting a few new projects off the ground this year and continuing with the fun projects from last year.

The more that I write, the more that I want to play, and the more that I play the more that I want to write.

I have been enjoying the openness of writing and playing in an unconventional ensemble of unconventional instrumentation. If I am playing in a small group it can unfortunately be very easy to measure a traditional jazz quartet or quintet against the great quartets and quintets of the past and feel very inadequate. With unusual instrumentation it has been nice bypassing these ghosts and getting on with how to use the instruments to convey what I would like to hear.

Current and future projects include writing music for a trio with Kristin Berardi and Sean Foran, a quintet with Kristin, Steve and Owen Newcomb and Joe Marchisella , a few big band pieces featuring a vocalist and strings, a brass band tune, works for saxophone quartet, a small wind quintet, some vocal ensemble pieces, material for a jazz quartet, and some works for voice, strings and piano.

Raffael’s album the Sweetness of Things Half Remembered has received critical acclaim around the world.  Check out our album review.