For decades, jazz and classical music have sought common ground on which to meet – with varying results.
Miles Davis’ and Gill Evans’ seminal 1960 album Sketches of Spain is perhaps the most successful ever project bringing together the written-through classical tradition with the improvisation that lies at the heart of the jazz idiom – the so-called Third Stream.
Matt McMahon and Richard Tognetti are bringing together their musical worlds in Sketches of Spain.Credit:Louise Kennerley
It’s fitting then that Richard Tognetti, classical violinist and artistic director of the Australian Chamber orchestra, and jazz pianist Matt McMahon have chosen the arid deserts, snowy peaks and glittering coastline of Spain as the location to bring together their two ways of making music.
Sketches of Spain, the concert series that begins in Sydney tonight, threads together disparate works all linked by the composers’ fascination with and love for the Iberian Peninsula.
Beginning with Debussy and Ravel it takes the listener on a journey via Boccherini and Bizet to finally arrive at an arrangement of jazz composer Chick Corea’s masterpiece, Spain.
The remainder of the quartet playing alongside McMahon is made up of Phil Slater (trumpet), Brett Hirst (bass) and Jess Ciampa (drums). Critically, all the jazz players are highly accomplished music “readers”, too.
Tognetti is well aware of the potential pitfalls in bringing together the two worlds.
“The vibe, the spirit is not going to work if you have on the one hand musicians that can’t actually swing it the right way,” he says. “And then on the other hand having jazz musicians who are not really sure where you are in the bar is another problem.
“But Matt has got together the most incredible musicians. That is not an overstatement.”
For McMahon, who is a long-time fan of the ACO, this collaboration is “just heaven”.
“They bring such attention to detail to the music,” he says. “That is just a dream to be involved in.
“It’s also challenging for us because sometimes we’re on our own ground improvising and at other times we are reading things and trying to phrase and feel with the orchestra.”
In rehearsals both the orchestra and the quartet have been eagerly learning from each other, particularly when it comes to the musical “colours” each ensemble can create.
“Matt’s understanding of jazz harmony is a different world from us,” says Tognetti. “Having this sense of harmony coming through the fingers and with Phil’s burnished sounds and Brett’s understanding of rhythm it’s just a beautiful thing. It’s still a different world. But it’s one that we envy.”
And for McMahon there is also a sense of returning to his own roots as a pianist.
“Every jazz player has always known about classical music and practised it, you know, in their bedrooms and then gone on to play jazz in public,” he says. “That knowledge has seeped through jazz.”
But, in the end, once you strip away the technicalities all that remains mostly is the exciting possibility of creating something truly fresh.
“It’s not even about genres,” says McMahon. “It’s just a bunch of musicians trying to find a way to make music work.”
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