Rob Burke, head of jazz at Monash University, is one of Melbourne’s leading saxophonists. He’s performed and composed on over one hundred CDs; toured extensively with Kate Ceberano and The Black Sorrows; and studied with Dave Liebman, George Garzone and George Coleman in New York.

In Australia, he has released two duet records with Tony Gould, and, in, July, 2003, received an Arts Victoria grant to record a solo album, entitled Wide. At Umbria Jazz Melbourne, 2005, Rob will premiere his latest project – the Rob Burke Trio and Five Guitarists, featuring bassist Nick Haywood, drummer Tony Floyd and guitarists Slava Grigoryan, Steve Magnusson, Doug de Vries, Pete Petrucci and Geoff Hughes. The CD, The Edge of Today, will be released on the Jazzhead label next week.

Jasmine Crittenden speaks to Rob Burke about this project, his life in jazz, and the ‘Melbourne sound’.

JC: Tell us a little bit about how the project came to fruition.

RB: I was doing some research and a paper on the Melbourne jazz sound for the Symposium of Musicologists, and I was thinking about how I could do a project that supports this research. So I thought to myself, ‘I’ll get a group together that encompasses the thought process of, I suppose, the Melbourne sound.’ I play with a lot of guitarists, and they are quite diverse in terms of their styles, their upbringing, their education and where they’ve performed and most of them are pretty good friends of mine. Everyone plays differently, so I thought it would be a great way to showcase the diverse styles and for the listener (and myself) to work out the different identities, but similar directions that are part of the Melbourne sound.

So, we have someone like Steve Magnusson, who plays in a more electric style and he uses sounds and effects and things like that, but he has an amazing technique. Then there’s Geoff Hughes, who is a very fine exponent on the guitar, but his harmonic sense is amazing. He’s become more electric, too, with his sound, especially on this CD. Then there’s Doug de Vries. His tradition is in jazz, but he’s spent a lot of time focussing on Brazilian music. Then there’s Pete Petrucci, who’s more of a straight ahead jazz player, I suppose in the Pat Metheny mould, but he’s developed his own style from his travels and from his development in Melbourne. Then there’s Slava Grigoryan, who’s not really a jazz player as such, but he does improvise and in a way he is part of the sound, in that he has an influence on the sound of what jazz or improvised music is. When he plays, it’s just so beautiful and that’s a huge thing to offer. Jazz is just a label – improvised music is so diverse, and that’s why someone like Slava is so welcome on a project like this, because who’s setting the rules?

So we’ve got five guitarists, with their very diverse styles, but the underlying theme is they all live in Melbourne, which is important, and because a lot of people, especially younger people, listen to them, I see them as an influential force in the direction of the way music is going. In a small way, just in a guitar way, but they are influential in the direction of music in Melbourne and in Australia, so that’s why I picked guitarists.

JC: So that’s why you chose to feature the guitar, as opposed to another instrument?

RB: Yes, because they’re quite diverse in their sounds. I mean, if I’d picked trumpet players, it would have been a little bit harder, because there aren’t so many of them. I could have picked saxophone players, but, you know, they take long solos (laughs) and I am a saxophone player myself. Maybe I’ll do that, get a whole lot of saxophone players, in a later project, but the guitarists seemed to work pretty well.

JC: Then there’s the trio…

RB: Yes. On the CD, it’s Tony Floyd and Nick Haywood, but for the concert it’ll be Tony and Ben Robertson.

JC: Did the diversity of styles present any problems or do you think that it only enriched the project?

RB: Well, they’re all really nice people, number one, and they were all into it. There were no negative thoughts at all. Most of them don’t usually play with so many other guitarists, so it was a very unusual thing for them to do. I could let it all happen in a way, without saying do this or do that, just be yourself. The way we put it together was, I said to each guitarist, ‘You write a tune for me and I’ll write a tune for you, but write it in your style.’ So, for example, I wrote a tune for Doug de Vries, in a Brazilian style and he wrote a tune for me in a very lyrical style. Steve Magnusson wrote a tune that’s quite lyrical but it’s got no bass. It’s in a cyclic mode, so it’s like a theme that goes on and on and on, and there’s improvisation by the drums. It is written in three parts, and it’s a great theme and amazing chords, and that demonstrates his intellect. It’s quite abstract in some ways, but it’s intelligently written. I wrote a tune for Geoff and for Steve, and it’s got quite difficult chord changes, but the melody’s quite simple, so we all had to think about that tune for a while, to work out how to play it (laughs). But we got through it and it sounds quite nice. I wrote a tune for all the guitarists, and it’s called the ‘Edge of Today’, and the way I structured that was that I wrote parts. There’s a little bit of improvisation in the solos – there are two – one with Slava and one with Doug – and they’re playing acoustic guitars. So everyone plays their parts and they come in and come out where they feel, because obviously the opening part’s structured but after that it’s quite open. I suppose it’s more in the Phillip Glass sort of style of writing. Slava didn’t write a tune, because he’s quite busy, he’s always touring. But we did one of the famous Piazzolla pieces – ‘Cafe 1930’ – as a duet. I also did ‘Azuro’ with Doug as a duet, which means crying. I’ve had a few people listen to the CD and everyone’s really liked it, but they say, ‘I really like this, or I really like that.’ It’s quite interesting, because every track has got something different to offer, which I suppose is what the project is about, in a way – all the diverse styles, all on one CD.

JC: What do you think defines the Melbourne sound?

RB: Obviously there are a whole lot of people who have their own scene – like the be-bop people or the trad people. But I think there’s a certain amount of lyricism in the way we play, more so than just a copying of the American scene. There’s an interactive approach. Instead of ‘We’re going to play this tradition’, we just play the way we feel, and try to play the melody really, try to open up the improvisation and have interactive melodic playing. There’s more and more of that – I hear it a lot. Jazz, or any sort of music, can be a competitive thing. It can become very fast. But even the fast players I’ve noticed, even people like Jamie Oehlers, even though he’s a really fast player, he’s trying to find his sound, to define his sound, and he’s becoming more and more melodic. It might be complicated, but I see that as an underlying theme with all the different styles. I suppose I do also surround myself with people that play melodically.

JC: Why do you think the Melbourne sound has developed that particularly musical approach?

RB: I think it’s got to do with several things. I think it’s got to do with the institutions. What happened was that a lot of people came through the Victorian College of the Arts, in the ‘80s and early 90s, when Brian Brown was there. He had a concept of ‘develop your own sound’, so there was a huge emphasis on being creative and developing a sound. Jazz, in a way, didn’t do so well in the ‘80s, I don’t think. There wasn’t much around, but in the ‘90s there was a renaissance. So those people who grew up in the ‘80s and learnt their craft – that influence is still there – being creative – and that’s rubbed off. They teach and people come and see them and things like that, so it’s rubbed off on the way we play and the way young kids play. It’s about being creative, but also being knowledgeable as well, and knowledgeable about what the rest of the world is doing. If you’re a musician now, you travel – you go overseas and you work your wares, and then you come back.

We have a pretty good scene down here in Melbourne – there are gigs and everyone, they might not be earning a lot of money, but they’re doing things. There are about three or four jazz clubs that play music every night and there are a lot of places where you can go and play your projects. There are a lot of very proactive people starting up different clubs and setting up their own festivals. A lot of people aren’t just relying on other people to do it – they do it themselves. I think it’s got to do with the culture of the place – and that will probably change in time.

The thing is, also, education is so big now. There are millions of people wanting to learn saxophone and guitar and all that sort of stuff. I’m head of the jazz course as Monash University and we’ve got ninety students here and we’ve only been going three years. People like Jamie Oehlers, and Steve Magnusson and Andrea Keller were or are teaching students that want to play. Plus, a lot of these institutions support musicians to go and do their projects.

The ABC also had a lot to do with it, because of the way they supported projects and they recorded projects, especially in the ‘90s. Now there are a lot more labels – Jazzhead has started up and the thing is, I think a lot of the musicians know they’re not going to make any money out of the recordings, but they’ll get good publicity. When you play art music I suppose it’s about getting your music out there, it’s not about making money out of it.

JC: And, to finish off, maybe just a little about you…

RB: I grew up in the ‘70s and I suppose I used to practise a lot. I did all those AMEB exams – A. Mus. A.on clarinet, and A. Mus. A. on saxophone. I started gigging when I was about fourteen or fifteen, because it was like that then. There was a lot of work and a lot of sessions. I was on the end of the session world, when a musician would get five sessions a day. I remember when I was eighteen, sometimes I was doing thirteen gigs a week. So I started playing pop music, a little bit of jazz, but not much – I went and worked as a session musician, sort of finding my way, working out what I really wanted to do. I went to the VCA, studied free music there. With music, it was much different then to what it is now. The whole world of music – it was about trying to be different, but now it’s about trying to be you, identifying our culture and things like that. Anyway, then I went and played with Kate Ceberano for eight to ten years. When we were on gigs with her, we’d go and do jazz gigs everywhere. When we were in London, we’d play at the Jazz Cafe and things like that. At that time Kate was doing jazz and her pop stuff as well, so we’d go to the Marquee Club and play a pop gig, and then we’d go to Ronnie Scott’s and play a jazz gig. It was quite diverse and that was what we did – that was our lives as musicians. I’d go and do a tour with somebody. I was a hired gun, I suppose, but as I got into my thirties, I started to get serious and practise. I spent a lot of time going to New York and studying with people – with Dave Liebman and George Garzone – with all those sorts of people. So I got serious and practised really hard again, and started working with people like Tony Gould. We started recording together and, stylistically, I’ve just kept developing.

Now, what I’m looking to do is projects, to make something out of what I do. Instead of just putting out my compositions and my music, I’m thinking about concepts. I’m thinking about where we’re going with music and things like that. So I suppose the guitarist project is one of those. Playing with Tony Gould is like that too, because when I play with him, it’s so lyrical. He doesn’t care if it’s all slow. He doesn’t care, as long as it’s beautiful, or there’s conversation and there’s interaction. I mean there’s balance as well, but that’s the way he plays, and it’s a really strong belief. I love that – I love that strong belief. Instead of trying to follow something, it’s about starting something and then developing that thought process…

The Rob Burke Trio and Five Guitars play the Forum Melbourne (Main Stage) on Monday, May 9th, from 8.30pm. For more information on Umbria Jazz Melbourne 2005, visit