AL Andrew Leigh
PG Paul Grabowsky
PG To use the piano is an extension of you. Sing through the instrument. Make the instrument sing which, when you think about it, is not a kind of a given because the piano is mechanical. You hit a key and there’s all those things that happen and finally a hammer strikes the string.
AL Welcome to The Good Life: Andrew Leigh in Conversation, a podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. In this podcast, we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teak us about living life to the full, with humour, pleasure, meaning and love. We’ll chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast, do take a moment to tell your friends or give us a rating. Now, sit back and enjoy the conversation.
Paul Grabowsky is one of Australia’s great musicians. He’s a pianist and a composer of music for film, theatre and opera. He’s won seven ARIA Awards and pushed the envelope in jazz and improvisation. He’s engaged in collaborations with indigenous Australians, worked in Germany for a number of years, and collaborated across a remarkable range of people.
His last two albums, for example, are Tryst with Kate Ceberano, which came out in 2019 and Please Leave Your Light On with Paul Kelly, which came out last year. He is an Australian legend and it’s a delight to have him on the podcast today. Paul, thanks for joining me.
PG It’s great to be here, Andrew, thanks for having me.
AL Were you always into music? How did it start, when you were a child?
PG Look, I was always into music and in a way which sounds quite unusual, as recounted by my parents. I was not very verbal as a very small child. So, up until the age of nearly two, I didn’t seem to have many words, to the point where my parents were starting to be concerned about that. But one day I started to speak quite fluently and a lot of what I said was in relation to music. So, I had been clearly listening and learning through, I guess, absorbing sound as the primary way that I was learning about the world and what it was made of.
So, very early on I remember… Well, I don’t actually remember this but I’m told we were holidaying near Melbourne at a place called Point Leo, this would have been about 1960, I guess, and the song Take Five was one of the rare moments where a modern jazz song becomes a commercial popular hit, and it was playing through the speakers outside the Point Leo Lifesaving Club, the old Tannoys that they would make announcements on, and I suddenly piped up and said Take Five, much to my parents’ amazement.
So, from that point on it was very clear to them, and to my elder brother, Michael, who was also a musician, that I was into music and it kind of rolled from there. I listened then to a lot of records. They bought a piano when I was four, I started having lessons when I was five, and then went to a more serious teacher when I was seven, with whom I stayed until I was about 18. So, it’s really been my first love and I’ve never seriously considered doing anything outside of something to do with music.
I think I was around 12. I toyed with the idea that maybe I could become a diplomat but I fairly quickly put paid to that notion, particularly after I fell in love with jazz. Jazz was the big turning point for me as a musician.
AL So, many of us as parents want to get our children into music. Is there anything that we learn from your musical education, your relationship with Mack Jost about how to engender a love of music?
PG Mack was an amazing teacher and, really, an amazing human being. I think anybody who had anything to do with Mack Jost was very struck by what a beautiful spirit he had. And I think the thing about music with children is children should feel free to enjoy music and I don’t know about you but I’ve met many people of my generation who had what I would describe as very traumatic experiences, learning music.
They had teachers who would hit them over the hands if they play the wrong note, things like that. So, they associated music with pain. And when we talk about playing music, I think the word play is very important, because it links the mature musician with the child, and that idea of finding constant wonder and amazement in music, and really having fun with it. I think if you’re not having fun with music, then really something is not right in the way that you’re going about it, because it really should be fun.
Whether you’re an amateur musician, whether you’re somebody who just enjoys having a bit of a play around with nothing else in mind, or whether you’re a professional musician who’s really at the top of your game, I think that the idea of having fun should never be absent.
AL Now, you’ve moved from your original classical training through to jazz, I understand partly because you worked out that that was a quick way of attracting the opposite sex. What was the Australian jazz scene like in the 1970s?
PG Gosh, I’ve learnt to rue the day that I made that comment. Look, I played in the school jazz band. I went to Wesley College in Melbourne and in the 1970s they were one of the very few schools, in Melbourne at least, that had a jazz unit. And I really couldn’t play jazz at all but I was the most skilled pianist at the school at the time, so I got the gig in the band.
It was an all-boys school and one of the great things that we did was we went to play a lunchtime concert at Methodist Ladies’ College, MLC, a very famous girls’ school in Melbourne, and in the overheated hormonal lives of young people, it was all way too exciting and I think I got a very distorted view at that point of what music was actually about.
But what can I do about that? It was what it was. But what really got me excited about jazz, and it’s going back to that word play again, Andrew, jazz is about improvising and improvising, of course, has an element of play about it which separates it from playing classical music, which is wonderful, of course, but in classical music you are very much tied to a particular set of notes that are there. It's the composition. You are supposed to play those notes correctly.
The freedom that you have with that music is giving it the poetry and imbuing it with your own interpretation, and there is a great deal of room to move in that. But with improvised music, you’ve really got an almost clean slate to work with. Jazz is not without structure, of course, it’s got, in some instances, a very predetermined structure. But you’ve got a lot of room to move in jazz, it’s incredible, and you are really reliant on your own creativity, your own fantasy, to be able to make it work for you.
And there are three principles, I think, in playing improvised music, which are really important, and can be applied to just about anything in life, I think. One of them is being that good on your instrument that you can make the instrument do whatever it is that you want it to do in the moment. So, you’ve really got to have a good technical commend of the instrument and know what I describe as the instrument’s geography really well. So, be able to move all around that instrument and make it do what you want it to do.
The second is you’ve got to learn to listen because the people that you’re playing music with in a jazz situation, and actually there’s no difference in this regard to anything else of a musical nature, and I think you would agree probably in life in general. But listening is something which people need to learn to do. It’s not something which comes naturally for people who are gifted with hearing, and of course we hear, and that’s part of our five senses.
But to apply your hearing to listening is really a decision you make and you’ve got to park your ego at the door in a way when you listen to somebody or to somebody playing with you in order that you and that person are really finding a sufficient degree of empathy but what you’re making becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
And that leads to the third principle, which is trust. You’ve got to really trust the musicians you play with in an improvised music situation because what they do is going to have a great effect on what you do, and vice versa. It’s very much a mutually supported operation and I think you can’t underestimate how important that is. So, those three things – having the technical competence, the ability to listen and the ability to trust – really constitute what makes that moment very important.
AL That’s so interesting because I’ve never played jazz but I’ve done some improvised acting as part of theatre sports in Sydney, and certainly the best improvised actors, people like Julia Zemiro were at the top of the game when I was there, had that combination of great acting talent but also an ability to listen and trust in order to produce extraordinary improv scenes.
But classical music had its own improv period too, didn’t it? I’ve heard you speak before about how Bach and Mozart used to improvise. What caused the death of improvisation within classical music?
PG Well, it’s a really good question. I would say that the evolution of classical music, particularly in the 19th Century, is very much tied to the evolution of society in general. As the 19th Century emerged from out of the industrial revolution and became a much more organised society and, as the nature of society itself became conditioned by vast economic questions and the mobilisation of large numbers of people, the whole idea of organising people’s time and making them understand everything that they had to do, was mirrored in music.
And I think the emergence of the large forms, like the romantic symphony and the long form sonata and grand opera in the 19th Century, all those things are highly organised forms of music making. There is no improvisation really in them. I think the closest you get to the improvised moment in that kind of music would be, for example, the piano music of Chopin, which often sounds to me like a written out improvisation. There’s detail in the music, which sounds like he’s been playing around, improvising, and it’s got that very flowing free sound about it, which suggests that it came out of the improvised moment.
But I really do think that it’s got to do with the emergence of a much more structured and economically organised society in a sense. And if you have a look at the roots of jazz, jazz, of course, is a gift to the world from the African diaspora and the origins of jazz really come out of the experience of slavery in the United States.
And those people used music in order to still link them to their ancestry but also to give them a moment of self-expression and freedom which reflected the situation that they found themselves in. So, I think that the idea of freedom is inherent to jazz and the idea of being obedient to the text, if you like, is inherent in Western classical music, post-1750, say.
AL So, the music of the confident establishment is then to follow the notes as they’re written down. Every player has their role and no one deviates from the score.
PG Yes, you could say it’s the music of the dominant class, in my view.
AL So, there you are, a jazz pianist in Melbourne in the 1970s. It got to a point where you decided to up sticks and leave the country for a bit. What caused that?
PG Well, that had something to do with a girl at the time but also I really felt that… In 1975 I matriculated. In 1976 I went to Melbourne University Conservatory of Music and I lasted there a couple of years and I think that people had very high expectations of me at the time, but jazz was becoming more and more an obsession of mine and I really wanted to try my luck learning that music in a place where I was far more likely to get further with it at a faster pace.
And there was nowhere to study jazz at that time in Melbourne. I think the Sydney Conservatorium course had just started under Don Burrows around that time but I really wanted to get out of Australia. I’d had a taste of that when I was… From the summer of 1974/1975 I spent in Germany as an exchange student, so I had a bit of a taste of what it was like to live for a while in Europe at a very impressionable age. So, it didn’t take much convincing.
When my girlfriend at the time moved to London to study acting, actually, I followed a few months later. I ended up staying in Europe for several years but during that time also I went to New York and spent several months in New York studying. So, it was really a combination of factors but none of it was very structured, I must confess. It was a chain of accidents. I just let myself be thrown around at the mercy of the winds and that’s what happened.
AL So, when I think of Germany and Jazz, I think naturally of that Weimar period of the 1920s. I know much less about German jazz in the 1980s. How would you characterise the scene there and how did that stretch you as an artist?
PG Well, that’s, again, a great question. German jazz, yes, sure, there was a definitive sense of jazz being a thing in Berlin, particularly in the 1920s. But jazz became part of the German cultural life, I think largely in the post-war era, because of the presence of American services there. But also, a lot of African-American musicians moved to Europe because they found that they had more opportunities and less overt racism, which might ironic in a German context.
I think that Paris was a much more attractive proposition for a lot of them but the Germans really did take to jazz in a very big way and quite a few of the cities had incredible jazz scenes. Berlin, particularly when it was a divided city, had an amazing jazz scene. I actually lived in Munich, but that also was a very vibrant jazz scene with several important clubs. And because of where it’s located, you could work all over central Europe from Munich.
And I fell into the Munich scene and played with a lot of different people in a lot of different styles. So, I learnt a lot in those years, playing mainstream modern jazz with one person and playing avant garde, very European jazz, high concept music and various things in between. So, I think in a way I got a taste of a lot of stuff and, yes, I look back fondly on those years. In fact, I’ve still got very, very good friends who still live there and are still very active playing jazz.
AL We should drop some names in here. Among the people you played with were Chet Baker and Art Farmer, extraordinary legends of jazz.
PG Yes, I did play with both those people. Again, I think in 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, around that time, it was the sort of end of an era in which a lot of the great American modern jazz musicians of the bebop era were starting to enter the final phase of their careers.
Johnny Griffin was another one. I did quite a few gigs with him. And his recorded legacy is amazing, Thelonious Monk and so on. Just to be able to spend time with people like that and to soak up something of that history was really an amazing opportunity and something that I think gives you a good foundation for understanding what the music is about, where you fit into it and also, I’ve got to say, how to adopt, if you are looking for this, a certain distance from that tradition in order to define what it is that you do in relation to that.
AL Now, one of the other remarkable things about you, Paul, is the fact that you’ve worked in so many different mediums. You’ve worked on operas, on solo work, on collaborations and you’ve also done a whole host of film scores as well. What’s it like to do a film score? Do you feel a little constrained? Did you feel a bit more like you’re an input rather than being the final product?
PG Well, it’s funny, film is in so many ways the very opposite of what drives jazz because, as you say, film is all about constraint. The first thing about film is that as a film composer you do work within a hierarchy and the hierarchy, at the end of the day, is controlled by, in the first instance, the director of the film. The director, of course, there are more shady people behind the director.
There are the various producers and, even more scarily, the executive producers who may have a view on this or that, in my experience, but where the jazz thing and the full music thing really do connect for me is that as a film composer, you have to be very quick at making musical decisions. You’ve got to be able to construct ideas on the fly because with film music there’s never enough time.
You really have to work very, very intensely at deadlines constantly and the music is often in film the very last thing which is added to the various componentry which constitutes a film. You’ve just got to really understand that that’s the way it works and so being a jazz musician and being used to the whole idea of improvising, making lightning decisions in real time, does equip you, I think, very effectively to be able to construct sophisticated musical ideas in a reasonably short time.
But the really difficult thing, I think, for a lot of people who are keen to get into film music, and these days many, many people are keen to do it because now you can set up a very effective film music recording unit in your own living room, if you want to. What people have to learn is that as a film composer you have to know how to give away the sense of ownership that you have over what you do in the sense that you’ve got to hand it over and you can’t be precious about that.
If the director says, I really don’t like what you’ve done there, unless you’ve got a very strong aesthetic reason why you’ve made a decision and it’s all in the service of the director’s vision that you’ve gone down that path, unless you can argue that case very persuasively, you’ve really got to be prepared, as a film composer, to say, okay, I’ll try something different. Explain to me what it is that you’re feeling here.
A problem there is that a lot of directors are not really musically literate, so they don’t possess the language to be able to talk about music from a technical point of view. So, there’s a bit of interpretation. It’s a bit like helping them to translate their idea into a foreign language. I’ve been very lucky in my life that I worked with some directors, particularly Fred Schepisi, for example, or the late Paul Cox who both had a very deep and genuine appreciation for music, and in Fred’s case, particularly jazz. He loves jazz.
So, it was always fantastic to be able to converse with him about music because he was coming from a place that you knew you had a lot of shared understanding. With Cox it was a different kind of process but, equally, he had a great passion for music. So, we’d always have great conversations.
But I’d say that it varies from director to director and sometimes you really can feel frustrated. And maybe the director feels frustrated with you too because you’re not finding that commonality of language and that’s something that’s a real hurdle that you’ve got to find a way through.
AL It’s interesting because the more you talk about it, the more it strikes me that composing for film is at the far end of the spectrum to playing a live jazz gig and it’s remarkable that you’ve done both in that sense. When you’re composing, what are your work methods? Do you have a certain time of day, when you get up? Is there a certain amount of work you aim to do? Writers have word targets. I’m not sure what the equivalent is for a composer.
PG Look, mostly I would say that the early morning is a great time to write music, before the day starts, the phone starts ringing, you get distracted by other things. Life is full of what I would describe as static, so you’ve got to try and avoid the rush and with music, certainly, the early bird does catch the worm. And I’ll try not to use any more clichés, Andrew, I promise but that’s what I would always recommend.
How do I work? Well, these days I work… It depends what I’m doing but I find that more and more these days, I work directly onto computer. The ability of computers now and software packages to give you the opportunity to work with very high quality tools means that you can do a lot of stuff on computers, the immediate realisation of ideas. So, I have to make it clear, I do it from a keyboard, from a piano type keyboard, so I input all the musical ideas from the keyboard, so there is that direct connection to playing.
But now there’s amazing libraries. If I’m writing orchestral music, and at the moment I’m the composer in residence for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, so I am writing quite a bit of orchestral music. But there’s a great way of being able to access that world, that sonic world, and hear more or less how things are going to sound with some of these amazing orchestral libraries which you can work with.
Nothing beats hearing the real thing, of course. I can write and write and write and hear this version of what I’m writing coming out of my computer. But when I turn up at the orchestra, to the first rehearsal of the piece, and hear real flesh and blood people playing it, of course that is where the rubber hits the ride. That’s an incredible feeling and that’s the moment where you think, wow, I’m so glad I decided to do this in my life.
AL What’s the limit of work for you? If you’re working intently on a project, can you work all day or is your creative capacity drained by lunchtime?
PG I can work all day but you’ve got to have breaks.
AL What do you do on your breaks?
PG I’ll go for a walk or read a book, play with the dog or talk to my wife, Andrew, of course. Just live life. I think it’s really important, if you… And I guess it would be the same with anything but I’m wondering if it’s the same with writers. If you come up against a problem and the problem is becoming intractable, to beat your head against that problem is not going to solve the problem.
But if you walk away from it and just give yourself some space, breathe the air outside and think about other things, then very often I find the solution to the problem suddenly occurs to you. Or, at least, when you return, you’re hearing with different ears, and I think this is really important too, that in spite of the fact that we might have heard something a thousand times, we never hear it the same way twice.
Our experience of listening to things differs because everything is always changing. And so coming back to that musical problem, all of a sudden you come back and you go, wait a minute, I was wrong from bar one. Or what if I did this? I’ll modulate it by five and all of a sudden you’ll go, okay, now this thing’s on the road again.
AL Do you listen to music during those breaks or are you concerned that you might accidentally put someone else’s work into yours and ending up turning Holst into the Star Wars theme?
PG No, I probably don’t listen… Unless there’s something I want to reference specifically, I wouldn’t be listening to things while I’m trying to compose. I think you get very confused, if you do that.
AL And what about when you’re working with collaborators? Do you find that going on writing retreats is helpful? Do you find it’s useful to have them in the room with you or do you actually still find that solo production is valuable, even on a collaboration with somebody like Paul Kelly?
PG Look, with Paul the music that we play is all… Not 100% but it’s mainly Paul’s songs that he has either recorded in other versions elsewhere or he’s given me some version of it to listen to. So, we haven’t actually sat down together and tried to write music together. But with Archie Roach I have done that and in the preparation for the album that I did with him a couple of years ago, Tell Me Why, which is music also related to his biography of the same name.
We spent the best part of a week at a retreat in the Adelaide Hills at a wonderful place called UKARIA, which is an extraordinary little concert hall and he just yarned and told me stories from his life and we had a lot of philosophical conversations. And out of that every now and again I’d go, wait a minute, there’s a really big idea there.
There’s a song in that idea, and I’d go away and write something at the piano and come back and say, this is how I’ve responded to what you were saying and then he would write lyrics to that. I would literally do what we’re doing now in a way. I’d record it on my phone, bring my phone back to him and say, have a listen to this, and then he would write some words.
And I guess the point I’m trying to make with this story is that it depends on the person you’re working with. I’ve collaborated with many people over the years and the process is always slightly different every time. I’ve collaborated with people from other cultures where we don’t even speak the same spoken language and/or musical language, but we’ve figured out a way of collaborating through musical will, I think.
AL You are a remarkable collaborator. Let’s dive into some of those cross-cultural collaborations you’ve done. Your collaborations starting in 2004/2005 with Nuka musicians, how did that come about and how did you build both a sense of trust but also build the music itself?
PG So, one day I was sitting at home and the phone rang and it was an ex-student of mine who was working for Charles Darwin University in Darwin and he was involved in a contemporary music project which involved going to remote communities with a kind of mobile recording studio, I guess, and working with young bands in those places. And he wanted me to come to Darwin and help him to do his, I think, Honours degree in jazz piano, and the University were prepared to fly me up to teach him.
And I said, well, that’s great, but it’s a long way to go from Melbourne to give piano lessons, with the greatest respect, but this work you’re doing in remote communities really interests me and I have long harboured the desire to meet and talk to traditional musicians of our First Nations people with an eye to seeing whether or not it might be possible to collaborate with them on something. Because the sound of Aboriginal, particularly the Yolngu music from that part of Australia, the north-eastern coast, the Gulf of Carpentaria.
It’s extraordinary music and it mystified me. I was really interested to know how it worked, what it was, what it was about and whether or not it was even allowed to have access to it from a collaborative point of view. Anyway, he said, look, the place I would recommend to go is Ngukurr. So, I went up to Darwin and taught him and he and I drive down to Ngukurr, which is…
For listeners who may not know where Ngukurr is, it’s due east of Mataranka. So, you drive down the Stuart Highway past Katherine to Mataranka and then you go on what is very impressively called the Roper Highway, which is far from what most people would regard as a typical highway. At that point it was the end of the wet season and we got to the Roper River, which now has a bridge over it, actually, but at that stage it didn’t have a bridge, and the river was still in flood.
So, whereas there’s a causeway, or there was, at low water levels you could drive a Troopy or a four-wheel drive or something through it. At this point we had to be barged down the river, which was amazing. It was a bit like that movie, Fitzcarraldo, down the Amazon with red cockatoos and crocs and you name it, the whole nature was just doing this massive symphony. It’s magnificent.
And I arrived at Ngukurr and within a very short of space of time, it was funny, it was almost as if it was all meant to be, I met members of the Wilfred family, Benjamin and Roy, and they started to talk to me about their music. And they were very excited, I think. This is the thing. First Nation Australians are very, and of course they should be, extremely proud of who they are, what they represent and what their entire belief system consists of, and there is a great deal to be learnt from all those things.
One of our great shames about our post-1788 history has been the missed opportunities that we’ve had to relearn from those people. Anyway, they were very generous and I found them… They sang a whole song cycle to me in this hut. And I think that was on day one. So, I’m sitting there with this incredible performance going on, thinking, wow, that is some of the most amazing powerful music that I’ve ever heard. So, I communicated to them who I was, what I was interested in. I played them some music that I recorded recently in New York and of course in complete defiance of my expectations, one of them said, oh, yes, I’ve been to New York.
They had gone to New York with some kind of First Nations dance organisation at some point. So, the idea that their experience of the world was really located within this particular geographical region was already completely thrown out the window, and about a year after that first visit, I went back with Archie, actually, and the late great Ruby Hunter and members of the Australian Art Orchestra, which was an ensemble that I had found in 1994.
We spent several days in Ngukurr learning these songs from these men and they taught us very rigorously and were very unimpressed if we didn’t remember what we learnt the day before and reminded us that this was important. And things like the correct order of sequence were really important, that you can’t just play bits and throw them around. The order in which things happen is in a way a mirror of whatever the order is that is inherent in the songs themselves. And there’s a sense of a connection to a cosmic order in all these songs.
So, there’s a great deal of various different aspects which you really only garner a working knowledge of over a considerable period of time, what it really means, what your responsibilities are when you’re playing this music. But also the degree to which they were completely up for accepting whatever it was that we brought into the conversation as being part of that music, that that music is not a fixed entity but it is something which embraces anything which they accept as being part of its reason for being. And in order to get to that point, of course we needed to have the necessary permissions.
And the person who was responsible for getting that permission was the great artist and lawman called Jumbu Bura [?] who’s no longer with us, but he was a man who everybody held in the highest regard and he turned up one day at our rehearsal. He didn’t say anything but I could just tell that there was an incredible sense of, okay, the main man is here now. And he then disappeared. He was there for a while and then he was gone. And I really thought, we’ve probably blown it now. He’s probably going to say to the Wilfreds, I don’t think so.
Anyway, this is not cool. This is not good, what you’re doing here. On the last night we were there we gave a concert. So, Archie and Ruby gave their concert with the Art Orchestra but also they insisted… The Wilfreds insisted that we open the show by playing with them what we had learnt to the community so the community could see that we had actually gone there and learnt something. And we were feeling fairly terrified by that prospect and underprepared but, anyway, we did it.
And while we were doing it, I looked up from my keyboard and I saw Jumbu Bura on stage performing with us, and that was when I realised, okay, we’re away. This is happening. And ever since that time we’ve performed with the Wilfreds in various different iterations all over the world, recently did this big piece that I created with and for them with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
But their work continues with the Art Orchestra. I’ve left the Art Orchestra now and it’s run by a great guy called Peter Knight. But the work continues with the Wilfreds and the AAO and I’m just so pleased and proud that it’s become a really important part of my life but also of the life of that organisation and particularly the life of the Wilfreds.
AL The musical style that the people in the Ngukurr community employ, it doesn’t use harmonies, is that right? It’s built over what you call drones.
PG Well, yes. It’s a little more complicated than that. The drone is something that people associate with the sound of the didgeridoo, which in their language is called yiḏaki. But it’s really not that simple. The yiḏaki, in my view, is a drum which happens to be played with the mouth by blowing into a hollowed out tree trunk. But if you listen to what is being played in the musical form, which is called manikay, in manikay the use of the yiḏaki is like a drum with a low pitch and a high pitch.
So, there are drums in India like that, the mridangam, which is a really important drum in Carnatic music in South India. It uses the same principle. The way that the yiḏaki rhythms are lined up with the vocal lines is totally synchronised. They are also, in turn, related to movement, so to dancing. But also whilst there are harmonies, there are modalities. So, there are sets of pitches and the intervals between those pitches are very important.
They are identifying aspects of what’s being sung. And the pitches can move around. Like what we would call the tonic or the fundamental pitch can move around but the relationships between the pitches generally stays.
And the other aspect of the music is something called homophony which is that you can have more than one person singing at the same time but they’re not going to be singing exactly the same way. They’ll be singing the same song but with their own inflections, their own ornamentation at the same time. So, that’s a really beautiful thing and, yes, I love all that stuff.
AL Has that shaped how you think about jazz? I know you’ve had an interest in this notion that Ornette Coleman talks about, of how melodics… Has working in the Ngukurr community shaped how you think about tone or music generally?
PG Andrew, that may be the first time that an Australian politician has ever mentioned Ornette Coleman. I think you have broken ground here, great significant ground. This is wonderful. Yes, look, Ornette is probably one of the greatest influences on my music and Ornette also was a philosopher. Harmolodics is a difficult thing to pin down but, as I understand it, harmolodics is really about relational musical moments.
So, if you regard music as being formed out of relationships of various kinds, relationships of pitch, relationships of rhythm, relationships between those two things. And if you look at harmony as emerging more out of a relational situation between pitches than as fixed ideas that exist in and of themselves, I think of harmony as resulting from simultaneity rather than being something which is a separate law of science, because it isn’t, really.
That’s the kind of universe of Ornette Coleman. It’s a universe conceptually not unrelated to, I don’t know, string theory or particle physics, a world in which the universe is constructed out of sub-atomic particles which are purely relational, that we can’t actually see. We can’t detect them as fixed points on a graph. They only appear in relation to each other.
So, I think of music as being like that and I certainly think that what I’ve learnt from First Nations people, and manikay particularly, is very related to those concepts. And I did try to convince Ornette to come and work with us, with the Crossing Roper Bar project.
PG Yes. Great story. I went around to his loft in Lower Manhattan and played pool with him and his agent. That was an amazing day. I’d met him a couple of times but, yes, it was not long before he passed and I think the moment had passed too. But had it been ten years earlier, ore 20 years earlier, I reckon he would have been right in there like a shot. It would have been right up his alley. So, yes, Ornette.
AL Is there a distinctive style of Australian jazz and, if so, how would you characterise it?
PG I don’t think there is a distinctive style of Australian jazz but I think there is an Australian attitude, which is expressed through Australian jazz. The Australian character is, I think, very geared towards improvisation.
And, again, going back to our First Nations people, if you have a look at what is involved in maintaining a certain relationship to the land in which you and the land live in a fairly sophisticated relationship over tens of thousands of years in what has got to be some of the most difficult terrain on the planet, surely there’s a degree of improvisation involved in doing that successfully. But you have to be able to move with situations as they emerge pretty much as part of those situations, and be part of that process.
I think the best aspects of Australia as a nation now are the ones in which we really let our creativity and our distance from some of the more mainstream areas of particularly the First World, our distance from those things should give us a certain advantage because we’re able to respond/react and come up with ideas which are peculiar to who we are and, given this history of irreverence which I think is also a part of Australian character and, indeed, our First Nations people too, famous for their incredible sense of humour.
That means that jazz is something which is a natural fit and when I look back at musicians that I’ve worked with, like particularly Allan Browne springs to mind, the great Northern drummer, who started as a traditional jazz musician in a band called the Red Onions but then went on to become one of the most influential modern jazz drummers. He was an incredible improviser but not only as a musician, also as a raconteur, as a poet, many, many different ways. And a very Australian character.
You’d never find an Allan Browne anywhere else, from the way he spoke to what he did. Joe Lane, the Sydney singer, is another one like that. Amazing character. Bernie McGann, a great Sydney alto saxophonist. These are quintessentially Australian people and the fact that they’re able to express themselves through jazz, that’s where I think we can talk about jazz and Australian in a way which has meaning.
AL Yes, and it does make some intuitive sense to me, that an egalitarian country will be drawn towards an anti-establishment style and perhaps also that in the blending of British traditions and indigenous history in a multicultural migrant base that you might elevate the improv approach to music. I want to wrap up by asking you a number of questions I ask each of my interviewees. What advice would you give to your teenage self?
PG Look before you leap. What advice would I give my teenage self? I would say, treat everybody with respect, never assume anything about anybody. Allow yourself to be surprised at all times because if you’re open to that possibility, more likely than not it will lead to very positive outcomes.
AL What’s something you used to believe but no longer do?
PG Well, I used to believe in a kind of theistic view of God when I was younger but I no longer do.
AL When did that theistic view leave you?
PG In my early 20s.
AL Did it change your music?
PG No, I think the music might have changed it.
AL Right. This is a bit like scientists who decide that they can no longer reconcile their scientific view with their theistic view. Music took you away from God in that sense?
PG Well, look, music was always suggesting the possibility of the unknown and the infinite and I also really… I’m a big reader and I really got into the works of Joseph Campbell around that time and I read his big trilogy. Actually, I think there’s four books in it called the Masks of God, and it’s a sort of survey of different mythological strands. So, there’s one on what he calls primitive mythology. It’s not a word I would use anymore. Oriental mythology, occidental mythology and modern mythology.
There’s a lot of really extraordinary information in those books and I think it made me realise that if you choose to analyse any one particular religion, then it’s a part of the greater matrix of human thinking and various things can be related to various other things. Again, it’s coming back to this idea that I do believe in, which is that we live in a relational environment.
So, I think deciding on one version of that has been an irrefutable truth. It does not rhyme with the way that I understand existence.
AL When are you most happy?
PG I think I’m happy when the people nearest and dearest to me are happy. My family, my friends. If I can be really self-indulgent for a moment, I’m really happy when I’m on stage. I love, love, love being on stage, playing music. There’s just moments of thrill which I can’t even put in words. But that feeling up there is very special, so that would definitely be right up there.
AL You generate an amazing emotional power. I was listening and relistening in recent days to Please Leave Your Light On and I still can’t hear the song, If I Could Start Today Again, without it making me cry. It’s such an evocative piece of music, and such an extraordinary craft that you perform, to be able to just shape people’s emotions within a few minutes.
PG But, Andrew, that’s so resonant in the words of that song, I think. That song, really, it kills me too. It’s really hard for me to just maintain my decorum when we’re playing that song. Because the words that it conveys, the ideas in that song, who has not felt that? You’d have to be a person with no feeling at all, heart of stone, to have not bought into what that song is all about.
So, it’s right at the heart of the human condition. But when you’re working with material like that with a guy like Paul, you’re halfway there already. And I do pride myself on being able to, I hope, convey feeling through music. What else is music there for, if not to convey feeling?
So, he’s got the words. He’s already written the song. All I’m really doing is bringing my own spin to it. And if you had to listen to the piano part in that song, what I’ve done is I’ve transcribed the original guitar part and then used that as the basis for building a pianistic interpretation of the song. So, I’ve made it sound very much like piano music but it’s coming originally from quite a strict adherence, for much of it, to the original guitar part.
Because I thought, when I heard it, there’s not much I can do to improve that. I can’t go away, as I’ve done with some of the other songs, and make my own version of this, because it’s perfect. Why would you want to mess it up?
AL You’ve said that Sinatra is there in spirit, on that album. What do you mean by that?
PG Well, when Paul and I were making the album, we found that we both had a great love for and listened to a couple of Frank Sinatra’s Capitol albums. I love a lot of Sinatra but these two albums were In The Wee Small Hours and Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely and they’re both orchestral albums arranged by the great Nelson Riddle. Of the two, my own personal favourite is the Only The Lonely one.
He casts himself as… Because we know, amongst other things, he was also a great screen actor, Frank Sinatra, but he really has cast himself as a man with a broken heart. Either that or a man with one massive chip on his shoulder and feeling very sorry for himself song after song after song but with incredible verismo, I think, real intelligence and real integrity.
And when you hear him sing a song like What’s New or The Songs I Know Only The Lonely Know or I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry, One For My Baby One For The Road, these are all songs on that album, he makes you believe them. He really does. You go, oh, my God, I’ve been there. I know that. I know that feeling. And I’ve never heard it communicated quite like that.
And I think that really influenced in what we were trying to make with our little recording, is we wanted those songs to speak the truth as much as we could get them to do that. When I listen to it… I don’t often back that often to stuff that I’ve done in the past. Who’s got time and we’ve got to move on but I am pretty proud of that record. I think we’ve done something quite special there.
AL Two final questions. What’s the most important thing you do to stay mentally and physically healthy?
PG I think walking is really important. For a lot of the last couple of years, I’ve done a lot of walking. So, I sometimes would routinely walk ten kilometres a day, like do a ten-kilometre walk, that is. It’s not an aggregate of ten kilometres but an actual walk, that distance, and I think that’s a really good thing to do. Because I’m not a runner and whilst I really admire people who are, I just can’t do it.
But I think that walking at a good pace, is a really good form of exercise. So, that’s what I would always recommend to people.
AL And, finally, Paul, do you have any particular food strategies you follow? Are you a pescatarian, vegetarian?
PG No, I’m an omnivore but I find as I get older, I’m less reliant on eating meat, particularly red meat. I’m very blessed to be married to somebody who’s a really wonderful cook. So, we eat very well in our house. But it’s not about fancy. That’s not what we do. It’s just good. I think the ingredients are really important and making sure that…
You’re just very aware. That’s one of the other things. It’s a bit like playing music. When you’re eating food, you’ve got to be aware of what it is, where it comes from and why you’re very lucky. Not that we should be going around on our hands and knees but don’t forget. Don’t take it for granted.
AL And, finally, Paul, which person or experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?
PG Wow. Yes, I knew you were going to ask me this question and I did grapple with it. I think Mack Jost probably would be the person who’s had the most impact on me in that respect.
AL Your childhood music teacher.
PG Yes. Because he was a man of great warmth and integrity, again there’s that word, and he also went the road less travelled as a musician. He made some really interesting choices. He was the first pianist in Australia to perform some music of Charles Ives, the American composer. He was an incredible believer in the greatness of the music of Bach.
Not that that’s very unusual but his particular way of referring to Bach as the Master, partially because he was loaded up with an incredible stutter. Mack had a stutter which really could stop the clock and, yes, he really couldn’t say my name. I’m talking about Paul here, not Grabowsky. Forget Grabowsky. But he learnt to circumlocute all of that through finding other ways of saying things, using other words to stand in for words he couldn’t speak.
And he was just a beautiful guy. Really caring. He was almost like a second father. I was with him through all those difficult years, seven to 18, and he’d never taught a child before. He was the senior lecturer in piano at the Conservatorium. So, he was used to teaching 18 plus. But as I got older, he started to teach more young people too, so it was not so unique.
I often think about Mack. Every time I play the piano probably I’m thinking about Mack. He taught me about the importance of making a beautiful sound with the piano, if you know how to do that. There are different ways of doing it but to use the piano as an extension of you. Sing through the instrument. Make the instrument sing, which, when you think about it, is not a given because the piano is mechanical.
You hit a key and there’s all these things that happen and finally a hammer strikes a string. But it really is… It’s a machine, a 19th Century machine, but he taught me how to make it sing and I think any great pianist will say somebody taught them how to make the piano sing, and that person is very important in their lives.
AL Well, that’s a beautiful tribute to your teacher there and a reminder to all of us to thank our teachers. Paul Grabowsky, master of music, guru, jazz, sultan of swing, thanks so much for taking the time to join me on The Good Life podcast today.
PG It’s been a real pleasure. Enjoyed it very much.
AL Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life: Andrew Leigh in Conversation. If you enjoyed this discussion, I’ll reckon you’ll like past interviews with Alice Pung, Tim Minchin, and Carl Vine. We appreciate getting feedback on the podcast, so please leave us a rating or tell a friend about the show. Next week we’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.