It’s been a big couple of weeks but I’ve gotten over the line, second year: done (fingers crossed).
One of the best experiences of last month was the 2013 Converge Festival.
The Converge festival is a subsidiary event of Sydney University’s Verge Festival, which is basically a two week, University of Sydney Union sponsored festival of ideas and performances from a diverse cross-section of the campus demographic. The Converge festival is the Conservatorium of Music’s sub-event within the greater Verge Festival, and asks Con students to form a group, brainstorm a concept and elect a jazz elder/hero to play it with. If your application is successful they organise a gig at one of three venues. It’s a great opportunity to work with the wise elders of the jazz scene and suck their brain for all they know (as well as an opportunity to network and get yourself out there of course) Good friend and drummer Harry Day and I formed a group featuring friends Luke Davis on trombone, David Allen on keys and Yutaro Okuda on guitar.
Our concept was to arrange and appropriate our favourite non-jazz tunes into a small jazz ensemble setting. We chose this concept for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the jazz idiom has long had a tradition of arranging the popular tunes of the day, most famously John Coltrane’s version of ‘My Favourite Things’ but also Bill Evan’s ‘Alice In Wonderland’, not to mention the entire Blue Note album ‘Blue Note Plays The Beatles’. More recently guys like Brad Mehldau and The Bad Plus have made their covers of tunes from bands such as Radiohead and Nirvana part of their standard repertoire. But our most recent inspiration was a band Harry and I had been listening to on repeat, The Next Collective. The group is basically jazz label Concord’s super group of musos they chucked into the studio together. It features guys like Matt Stevens, Christian Scott, Walter Smith III, Kris Bowers, Gerald Clayton, Logan Richardson, Jamire Williams and Ben Williams; the fresh generation of today’s jazz NY scene. The concept of their album ‘Cover Art’ was exactly the same as ours: Cover their favourite tunes. The album features some pretty cool arrangements of Kanye West, Bon Iver, D’angelo to only name a few.
So, with the band and concept sorted, the last part of our application was to elect a musician to play with. We knew we wanted a bass player and chose Jonathan Zwartz because he is super groovy and we really dug his compositions and thought he could bring some of that cool school found on his albums to our arrangements. We each arranged a tune and brought it to the group. It was cool to see these indie/rock/pop tunes into an acoustic jazz setting. We met and rehearsed with JZ and he was even cool enough to let us come round for a rehearsal at his before the gig. He had some great feedback on our arrangements and really helped us groove and blend that little bit harder/better. It was really mind blowing to see how such minute changes to a drum feel or emphasis on a bass line can re-shape an entire groove. Plus he was a quality hang.
The gig was inside the Sydney Uni Dome tent which is equivalent to playing a gig inside your bathroom (although not quite as a large as the Music Workshop hey Craig ; ) ) but was well worth being able to play to a crowd of main campus kids, who hopefully had a lot of the tunes we were playing on their ipods and could connect with the music. Speaking of tunes, the setlist was: Kid A, by Radiohead, Sing About Me by Kendrick Lamar, Rain Song by Led Zepplin, Mirrors/Niggas in Paris by Justin Timberlake/Jay Z and Expectation by Tame Impala.
I recorded the set on my Zoom and thought I’d share some of the tunes. This first tune is the arrangement I brought to the group, Tame Impala’s ‘Expectation’. Tame are without a doubt one of my favourite bands of all time and I’d been meaning to arrange one of their tunes for a while. I chose this tune because it featured some really workable characteristics including the hemiola (2 over 3 feel at the start), an interesting form with a diverse range of sections and a super-cool reprise at the end. In fact, although Expectation isn’t my favourite Tame tune, one of my favourite musical moments was seeing them play it live at the Opera House as part of Vivid Festival back in 2011. They jammed on the reprise and build this huge sound from nothing and finished so clean, it was crazy… and so I tried to replicate that when arranging the tune.
I should add: An example of JZ’s influence on the set was his suggestion to change the groove in the second time of the bridge into that 3 over 2 shuffle feel. It worked so well and really made sure the song didn’t get stale.
Here is the original if you haven’t been hipped it already.
and I just found this video of the very bit I was talking about from Tame’s gig at the Opera House- check this!
Here is another tune from the set I’d like to share. It’s Harry’s arrangement of Radiohead’s Kid A featuring yours truly. You couldn’t do a set of jazz covers and not include a Radiohead tune. They would easily be the most covered band by jazz artists in the past two or three decades (maybe eclipsed by The Beatles overall). I think it shows the merit in their writing to have so many jazz musos cover their tunes. You can’t arrange a tune that has nothing to give. That’s where Radiohead songs shine. Within theirindie/pop/rock shell of sound they really throw in meaty harmonic, melodic and rhythmic curveballs that, although at times subtle, appeal to the more musically educated.
If you don’t know the original of this one, go back to re-live your teens.
Just before I finish, something that really stuck after the gig was a discussion with a friend from the classical course who was in the audience. We had previously had a heavy talk about the shifting relevance of genre within our two styles of chose, jazz and classical, and after the gig I made a bit of a jazz joke about the music and she quickly retorted with something along of the lines of ‘but I wouldn’t call that jazz’. I found that pretty interesting. It certainly wasn’t the straight-ahead swing of the 40-50’s that she and most people are familiar with. I wasn’t sure how to respond at the time but now I probably have to agree with her. Even though we are all ‘jazz musicians’ as such, I think the music we displayed would be better described as contemporary improvised music. Although would you call the Next Collective jazz? I’m not sure there is an definitive answer. In retrospect it was sort of pleasing to hear that someone thought the music you played transcended certain stylistic guidelines. Have a listen and tell me what you think.
Also, Big ups to Sydney Uni Union for funding Verge/Converge. Plus the biggest thank you to Paul Meo for all the hard work organising the Converge, whether it was getting in contact with the mentors or organising the venues etc. What a guy.
Lastly, a massive thank you to Jonathan for not only being part of our group but being super responsive and positive about it all. It was a real pleasure to meet and work with him. Cheers JZ!
All rights to photos go to photos go to Verge Festival.