Paul Grabowsky and Kram, who will be performing alongside James Morrison as 'The Others' at the 2018 Melbourne International Jazz Festival, took some time out of their busy press schedule to sit down with us at the Langham in Melbourne. The conversation twists and turns, mirroring one of their improvisations. Don't miss this trio of stars while they're in town.
Kram: I think the cold weather might help with songwriting. When you're at the beach, you kind of just want to spend time there, not thinking about anything else but when it's cold, it's easier to get to work! I was saying today that not a lot of masterpieces were created in paradise, so maybe that has something to do with it?
Rehearsal: This is such an exciting collaboration; can I ask where the idea came from?
Kram: It was my idea, I'm responsible! I did an improvisation at the Town Hall many years ago with a bunch of musicians and I got really inspired to start playing jazz again. I ran into Paul at that gig and asked if he was keen to get together for a jam. I had already run into James - we were on a Shaun Micallef show together I think - and I remember asking him if he wanted to play something with me. I was feeling like I needed to shake things up and so was he, so eventually all three of us had a session in Melbourne. We literally just started playing and we knew that it was going to work. One of the first things we played together has become the press work that we're sending around; at the end of it you can hear Paul laughing because we were having such a good time! We finally played our first show last year at the Wangaratta Jazz Festival thanks to Adam Simmons, and the response was so overwhelming. This will be our second ever show. It's been a long road to get here, but we're thrilled to have arrived.
Rehearsal: You both have performed and written for genres outside of jazz, but I imagine working in this intimate set up is a little like coming home.
Kram: I was a country kid but I had an amazing teacher, who wanted to escape the city so came to work with students in the area I lived. We connected and she encouraged me to play jazz, which you can hear in the early Spiderbait stuff - it was definitely a really important influence for me. After uni though, when the band started to take off I definitely left jazz behind a bit, so returning to it in this set up is like returning to something that I'd forgotten about but means a lot to me. I really enjoy the dynamic nature of playing jazz; it can be sentimental but also completely wild.
Rehearsal: Paul, you began by playing classical piano - where did jazz begin to form part of your musical journey?
Grabowsky: I began playing piano when I was really small, maybe 4 or 5, and my training was completely classical until the end of high school. I started to get into jazz before I finished school though - I went to Wesley when the jazz program was just getting started, so I was in one of the very first iterations of the Wesley College Big Band, and that would have been my introduction to playing jazz music. Looking at a piece of music that didn't have everything written out on it and knowing how to interpret it - that was the first challenge! It was a steep learning curve, but the more I got into it, the more I realised that this was actually the music I wanted to be playing. I could play the piano well, but I really wanted to be able to play the piano and make it work for me, rather than having to work for it. I was kind of in a servile relationship with the instrument!
Kram: Because of the music you were playing?
Grabowsky: I think so - though, not every classical musician would say that; for many, the interpretation is exactly the point. Many musicians want to serve the instrument and serve the composers, and that's what training does in many cases. Jazz for me, as a pianist, was a way to bring my ability to play the piano and put it into a creative world. You had to be able to convert the playing into the making. That marriage of intellect and passion, which is at the heart of jazz, is the most exciting thing.
Kram: Piano embodies rhythm as well, doesn't it? It's just there waiting for you. I always thought as a percussionist, that the piano was so much about rhythm and body.
Grabowsky: Nothing else can do what a piano does. An electronic instrument might have the best samples in the world, but it's still so limited. As a piano player, you have to use your entire body to make the piano sing. There's no other way of doing it.
Kram: No amount of technology can replace those acoustic instruments, just like no experience can replace live music. It's ancient - we need it, as humans.
Grabowsky: Because live performance is so much about energy transfer. This is very much getting back what The Others is about. Because we improvise music, we have no idea what it's going to sound like and we're still in the process of discovering our own sound. The relationship between the band and the audience which we experienced for the first time last year in Wangaratta, was a huge factor in shaping what we do as an ensemble.
Kram: It's changed us completely; we're different because of it. If we were to do this interview before that first performance, I think we would be talking about our music and our performance as an ensemble completely differently.
Grabowsky: There's such an important dynamic between an audience and a band; it's almost like a tribe. Your audience needs to relate to you, but also trust you as a performer. Jazz doesn't always have as immediate a relationship with an audience as other genres, so there is a slightly different way of connecting.
Kram: I've definitely noticed that since we started playing. I've noticed how reluctant jazz musicians are to get really crazy in front of their audience because that's something I really love to do! When you get into a groove, it's so freeing to just let go and enjoy yourself and the space and the response. When you look back at older jazz musicians, like Coltrane for example, he really allowed himself to be free and playful with the audience, but things are a bit more chill now. The music is still great but there's less wildness. We try not to let that get to us though - we want to get the crowd going and not be too self-conscious about our presence. These guys make me feel really comfortable as well, and that makes a big difference, I think.
Grabowsky: I suppose the idea is that jazz is serious in lots of ways, but that shouldn't mean that you can't have fun. There is a seriousness about having fun and you can have a lot of fun being serious!
Rehearsal: Does the fact that you're improvising have any influence on that?
Grabowsky: I think so - there's an element of game play about improvising. Everybody kind of knows what the rules are, but they're kind of making them up as they go. When I speak to people who don't know much about jazz, I often say there are three ways of thinking about improvisation: the ability to be able to play your instrument well, the ability to listen and the ability to trust. If you analyse a lot of the world's problems, you see the root is an inability to listen, so while it might seem simple, actually allowing yourself to stop talking makes a real impact: you have to shut up and listen! If people would shut up and listen to one another they might get to a point of thinking "okay, right - that's what you mean". In music, that's the bottom line; it's all about mindfulness, to use a modern buzzword. You have to listen and you have to trust. You are there for the people you are playing with and they are there for you.
Kram: You also have to trust the audience. I used to get really stressed out about performing until I started allowing myself to enjoy performing for the people who were coming to see me play. You can actually change your whole mindset about that, which adjusts the way you play. Whenever I play now, I try and remember that this might be the last gig I ever play, so I treat the moment as if it's really special and that allows me to let go.
Grabowsky: I totally agree with that; it's the heart of the matter.
Rehearsal: Speaking of trust and the ability to bounce off each other and allow yourselves to improvise, I wonder how immediate that feeling was between the three of you? Did it happen straight away, or has it developed over your rehearsal time?
Kram: It happened straight away. We recorded the first jam we ever had and that has been really wonderful, because we look back at that and can reflect on how immediate the feeling was. Because we trusted each other almost immediately, we've been able to build on that - Wangaratta was freer and I think the MRC will be bigger again. Every gig is our first gig, every time we play together it's new.
Grabowsky: I think if we ever got to a point where we felt like we were repeating ourselves, someone would shake it up.
Rehearsal: How has improvisation impacted your songwriting? Does your composition come from a place of improv or is there some more significant structure to your approach?
Grabowsky: The creative process is such a mysterious thing - I've thought about this question a lot! I think there's a major link between the creative moment and memory because I don't think anything is completely new; everything is related to everything. All my ideas have a lineage - all chords have been used before I use them, you know? The real geniuses of music have been able to rearrange information in surprising or original ways. Is it improvisation, though? Sometimes, yes. When you're improvising, you're throwing yourself into the stream of time. In songwriting, you're normally compartmentalising your decision-making process into a set form - looking at the end product and trying to arrive there. The idea of determinism and destination is important in songwriting. What we make is a giving over of all of our knowledge and memories into whatever happens in that 90-minute stream, and there is a lot of compositional thought that goes into that but it is slightly different from songwriting.
Kram: The end product is the goal in songwriting, as you say Paul, but I think it's also the goal in improvising - it just takes slightly longer to get over the hill and see the end. You can kind of feel when the piece is winding down. I do believe you take the songwriting ideology into the improvisation realm, and you start to play and write at the same time. It's the speediest kind of songwriting; good improvisation is knowing when to stop!
Grabowsky: There's a funny story about John Coltrane when he was playing with Miles Davis. It was one of his last tours in Europe and he was working through a whole lot of ideas, which meant his improvised solos were very long; you couldn't play three or four choruses, you had to play twenty, so he could get all his thoughts out. Coltrane went to Davis and said that he was sorry for playing such long solos, but he had all these ideas and he wasn't sure how to bring them to a conclusion. Davis apparently said, "try taking the horn out of your mouth."
Kram: Really? There are two different personalities right there! I saw Miles play once.
Grabowsky: I opened for him in Europe in '84. I didn't meet him - I was playing with Art Farmer, but I was too scared to go up to Miles! There was a vibe around him; he used to wear these clothes made out of parachutes and dark glasses, he was so good. It was quite enough to be near him, he was a superstar!
Kram: We're in a space now where it'd be great to see some more risk taking in jazz, like Coltrane was doing, like Davis was doing. I want young people to know that if you don't take a risk, you don't get the reward, so it's worth crashing and burning to find out what you can do.
Rehearsal: Speaking of risk-taking, what are your thoughts on building a career now as a young jazz musician, particularly when the idea of "jazz" is so broad?
Kram: Two things: firstly, you have to get as good as you can get. There are so many things that you have control over when you're working in this industry, but you do have control over your own ability. You have to practice and work and love it. The second thing is finding your own individual sound. People will respond to your individuality, and you'll feel freer to create the things you need to create. It took me a while to get there and years later it all twigged at once - I just had to be myself.
Grabowsky: You're completely right, it's completely critical. There is a point in time in which you have to unburden yourself from the anxiety of influence. And you can never stop learning.
The Others perform at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Saturday 9th June as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival.