How do the National Jazz Awards sit with the musicians vying for the prize? We find out

This weekend, the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues kicks off for its 2017 event, with artists from around Australia and abroad trekking out to the country Victorian centre for three days and nights of live music.

As we mentioned in our previous feature on the festival, the National Jazz Awards has also remained a key drawcard element of the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues, as ten of the country’s most talented jazz musicians are selected to compete for a cash prize of up to $12,000, as well as an invitation to perform overseas. The awards event takes place on Saturday and Sunday’s program of the festival, with ten brass players from around Australia set to take part in final heats, before a top three is selected to progress to the final stage.

As we find out from some of the finalists, the National Jazz Awards has made them look further at their own musicality as they’ve been preparing for the main event.

Ricki Malet, 2017 NJA finalist and trumpet player hailing from Western Australia, notes his process of preparation was centered on highlighting his individuality above all else.

“Preparing for the NJA made me try to be unashamedly myself,” he says. “How do you out-jazz other players? It can’t be done; all you can do is showcase your own concept of sound or music, which I feel is a collection of my influences and what I like to hear in music. It definitely forced me to explore music a lot more! Sometimes I feel like a cheap impersonator of my favourite trumpet players and hopefully the exploration is slowly evolving whatever my sound is.”

Sydney trumpet player Thomas Avgenicos echoes Malet’s sentiments. “The recording I made for my audition taught me a lot about my own playing. I think it was an honest representation of where I’m at, at the moment. The process made me aware of things that I hadn’t really thought about.”

Like the rest of the festival Wangaratta will be hosting, the National Jazz Awards provides a solid platform for musicians from around the country to not only play off against one another, but to see their peers at work. As Malet points out, travelling from the West Coast is an opportunity to be relished.

“Living in the West, it is sometimes hard to keep in touch with what’s happening eastward. I do tend to look up any NJA or Freedman Fellowship finalists I’m not familiar with, so it is often a good barometer as to who to check out in the Australian Jazz/Improvising scene.”

James Macaulay

Melbourne trombone player James Macaulay agrees. “The Awards bring together finalists from four diverse jazz scenes; those of Perth, Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne. Over the years, I’ve hard a lot to do with my fellow Melbourne finalists, and I’ve had the pleasure of hearing and getting to know most of the interstate finalists too. It is always exciting to get to hear what kinds of music is being made outside of Melbourne, and since brass is an especially mysterious field of inquiry, I am really looking forward to hearing what all the finalists have to offer. I am, of course, very pleased to see the Trombone represent so positively in the final list!”

While certain areas of jazz still may carry a certain stigma or air of exclusivity around it, young players such as this year’s National Jazz Awards finalists are proving that it’s an exciting time to be creating music currently.

As Macauley mentions, opportunities for jazz musicians to take part in competitions like these are scarce.

“I haven’t participated in many competitions,” he says. “Since there are few opportunities for jazz musicians in Australia. At the end of the day, I am still practicing so that when I am improvising, the trombone responds well, my ideas are clear and engaging and that I react and interact effectively with the musicians I’m playing with. I am glad the National Jazz Awards stipulates that the finalists perform a work of a significant Australian brass musician. My list of Australian musical heroes and mentors is long and crosses generations, so I’ll be happy to pay tribute to even one or two of them this weekend.”

The National Jazz Awards, like many other award events within the Australian music industry, don’t just come without their criticisms, however, and it’s a topic the finalists have also touched upon. When it comes to the NJA providing an accurate representation of the Australian jazz, particularly the Brass, scene, the results varied.

Previous NJA winner (Piano) and 2017 finalist on trombone, Joe O’Connor says, “The final rounds of the award always include a group of the strongest young plays in Australia. It’s a prestigious prize and ambitious jazz musicians tend to enter, so the previous winners and finalists include many of Australia’s most prominent jazz musicians. Having said this, competitions play to some people’s strengths and temperaments more than others. There is a history of musicians who are tipped to be strong contenders, missing out on places in the semifinals. I’m sure there are all sorts of reasons for this.”

“I don’t think awards and competitions should be used as a measure for that sort of thing,” Avgenicos adds. “They are always so subjective and there are too many variables. The musicians selected in the NJA are all incredible creative musicians, many of whom I’ve looked up to for a number of years. There are also so many musicians creating amazing music who weren’t selected as finalists [too].”

Joe O’Connor

“I think it is [representative], to a certain extent.” Melbourne trumpet finalist Patrick Thiele says. “I think there’s a lot of musicians who don’t get in who don’t fit the criteria and I think, in some instances, there are musicians who have gotten in who don’t play on the instrument at all in the scene. There are a few who aren’t even in the Australian scene currently as well – I would also count myself in that too – they’re overseas. I think it represents an Australian approach to playing, but I don’t think it necessarily represents the scene itself. When people talk about some not getting in like they thought they would, the reason to think that is because they hear them quite prominently on the scene; when they don’t get in, it makes them wonder what the criteria is.”

The auditions for the NJA are pored over via judges during a blind audition which of course, leaves much room for more ‘regarded’ or ‘current’ jazz musicians to perhaps fall through the cracks. Judged purely on what the panel is hearing, it could well be positioned that the National Jazz Award is not as reflective of the current scene of performers as it perhaps could be.

Previous Brass winner and trumpet finalist Eamon McNelis notes the stark absence of female musicians.

“I don’t think it would be fair to all of the incredible women making improvised music to call us ‘representative’ of the entire scene.” he remarks. “It really sticks out, that there aren’t many women finalists this year. To me, it suggests there are not as many women playing brass instruments or jazz music in Australia as there could be, or should be. Not that this is the fault of the judges of the NJA; it’s a blind audition. If anything though, that’s worse! It would be a comfort to have a sexist adjudicator to blame, rather than face up to the real reasons.”

“I think there have been a lot of women pushed out of the jazz scene, for one reason or another, and I think that’s a gigantic shame,” McNelis furthers, expanding his opinion to the wider Australian jazz scene and culture. “I think women are still being pushed out. …Women get pushed out because of the behaviour of men within the scene. There’s sexual harassment that happens in the informal working environments of music venues, even at music schools too. There’s idiots with old-fashioned attitudes, that against the clear evidence of their own ears, still think that girls just can’t play.”

Melbourne trombone finalist Josh Bennier notes that while it’s impossible to represent the Australian jazz scene entirely via the NJA, the variety of music styles that is highlighted cannot go unnoticed.

“Competitions are always a funny way of judging overall musicianship. Often, competitions don’t have as much of a focus on originality in composition and performance, but I believe that Wangaratta provides a platform for more individuality and musical freedom. This year, there’s no doubt that the group of candidates are all incredible. Although there’s no way to really include everything, they provide a great snapshot of the variety that can be found in the Australian Jazz scene today.”

Trumpet player Niran Dasika, who has spent a considerable amount time recently exploring opportunities overseas, notes the elements of the Australian scene he finds affinity with the more he travels.

“I am glad there is an event to celebrate the truly exciting music that is coming out of Australia’s new generations. I appreciate the vibrancy and creativity of the Australian music scene more and more, as I spend more time overseas. So many people I’ve met are shocked to hear that Australia even has as jazz scene, let alone that it has some of (if not) the most exciting improvised music in the world. I feel a particularly strong affinity to the trumpet scene within Melbourne…the bar for trumpet playing (and music overall) has been set impossibly high and the younger generations are coming out with really interesting music in reaction to that.”

So, with the NJA coming up in just two days, how do the finalists feel about putting their own work, plus their interpretations of others’ on show (and broadcast on the ABC)? How has it made them think about the way they play?

“It hasn’t prompted me to change anything,” Thiele admits. “I was already working towards just generally being better on my instrument for the last two years before this came along. If anything, it’s taught me to embrace what I’m doing and not try and play for the benefits of other or play to the criteria I think is going to please others. When you do find out you get in [to the Awards], it can give you a pat on the back to let you know that you’re doing the right thing, it’s something that lets you know you’re on the right track. It probably gave me more confidence in that, by getting in the Ten.”

“At first I was really stressing out about how to change my playing to be more ‘impressive’ to the judges, and choosing the most technically impressive material to showcase,” Dasika adds. “There was a point where I decided to forget all that and play the most ‘me’, and at that moment I stopped feeling any real anxiety about the competition. I resolved to play my favourite material in whatever way feels the most personal and sincere at the time.”

“Instead of viewing these awards as a competition, I’ve been looking at them as an opportunity to play in a new, exciting environment while meeting and hearing some amazing brass players from around the country.” Bennier says. “Preparing for the awards has also made me more aware of the fact that often, I compose longer form pieces. Or pieces that don’t make sense without the context of surrounding works. This made preparing an original piece to play that could be picked up in a 10-minute rehearsal a little trickier, so that’s something I’ve learnt moving forward.”

As McNelis explains, performing the work of others at an event such as the National Jazz Awards is a great way to pay tribute to some of your heroes, but what if the original artist is an adjudicator?

“Sure, you could call me a suck up, but it’s something I listened to on repeat when I was a kid, and it’s a joy to hear it come alive out the end of my own horn. This is my third National Jazz Awards, but I haven’t got used to how nervous it makes me feel. But why worry? The worst that can happen is utter humiliation.”

 

The National Jazz Awards take place on Saturday, November 4 and Sunday, November 5. For more information, and more info about the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues, visit www.wangarattajazz.com.

Photo: Thomas Avgenicos, by Frank Crews Photography.