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Matt McMahon : All Music



Matt McMahon didn’t get nervous before his Freedman Jazz Fellowship concert in July. He didn’t have the energy.

A Friday night gig at Bennetts Lane in Melbourne was followed in quick succession by gigs with Vince Jones in Sydney and Darwin. “So between Friday night and the Freedman concert on Monday I think I had about seven or eight hours sleep,” said McMahon. “Sometimes those things can work for you. All you can do is keep awake and do the best you can.”

Fatigue certainly didn’t impede the 34-year-old Sydney pianist. His sophisticated musical intelligence not only impressed the packed audience at the Sydney Opera House but the judges as well, who awarded him the 2005 Fellowship. (Previous winners are pianist Andrea Keller, trumpeter Phil Slater, saxophonist Andrew Robson, and guitarist James Muller.)

McMahon will use the $20,000 prize to finance a recording project featuring a combination of his own compositions and those by fellow musicians with whom he feels a kindred spirit. It is, he says, culturally important to showcase the work of local artists.

“The jazz scene is incredible but we don’t get much exposure and so I see something like Freedman as an opportunity to push not only me but also a whole scene.”

McMahon, who also won the National Jazz Award at the 1999 Wangaratta Festival of Jazz, says there are many compositions he’d like to record, including work by Guy Strazzullo, Steve Hunter, Phil Slater and Alex Hewetson.

“The bottom line is I love the pieces. They’ve really had as much impact on me as playing standards, he said.”

The pianist plans to present the material differently to their original context with the aim of revealing both different aspects of the pieces as well as his own playing. The project will feature regular collaborators James Muller, Phil Slater and bassist Jonathon Brown on and drummer Simon Barker, as well as a string quartet. “I’ve had a chance to write some stuff for strings in the last couple of years, which I’ve really enjoyed.”

McMahon is uncertain whether there is such a thing as a distinctive flavour to Australian compositions (“It’s tempting to say it’s reflecting the landscape. I don’t know about this but there’s certainly an openness and a sense of space”) but believes our distance from the US and Europe allows Australian musicians to absorb a range of influences.

“A lot of my friends are equally interested in Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek and at the same time Tommy Flanagan and those kind of American players. There is not as much of an opposition, I don’t think; the camps aren’t as strong. I think that means all those influences can filter into our music in a non-polemical kind of way.”

Before McMahon can realize his Freedman project he has a trio recording to release. Like many of his talented peers, he is busy working in a variety of contexts: as the musical director for Vince Jones, as a co-leader of the Band of Five Names and as a leader of his own trio. In addition, McMahon plays regularly in other bands - a gun for hire.

Does he feel he is spreading himself too thin? “I actually love doing that,” he said. “I’m one of those lucky people who enjoy the challenge of walking into a context and quickly sizing up what might be necessary musically,” he said. “I’m lucky in that I’ve investigated music enough and will be called for a diverse array of things.”

“I get a lot of stimulation from being out amongst all the different people. It’s difficult to exclusively do one’s own projects in this country - very, very difficult - but it’s not something I’d do by choice anyway.”

He says loves playing with vocalists, particularly Vince Jones, who he describes as one of the world’s great singers. “Everything is in the service of making the singer feel comfortable, whether it means being very sparse, or providing energy or trying to create an environment where the singer can really shine.”

McMahon grew up in Sydney’s southern suburbs in a household which treated art seriously, and he remembers hearing names like Dylan Thomas, Yeats and Brahms being used casually in everyday conversations. This was in stark contrast to the prevailing attitude towards the arts among many of his sports-mad contemporaries, most of whom regarded such pursuits as decidedly unmasculine.

Times have changed but, perhaps, not enough and he says a lot of people still get very disappointed and disheartened trying to do creative work in Australia. Nonetheless, he is excited about the current state of the Sydney jazz scene, despite the limited outlets for performance.

“Musically it’s incredibly healthy. There are a lot of really incredible musicians turning up all the time with ever decreasing opportunities.”

“It’s very hard to get live music going in this city. A common scenario is a band slowly builds a little residency in a little place and everyone gets behind it and then one phone call from a neighbour after six weeks of hard work is enough to can a gig.”

In 1998, McMahon was part of a small of musicians who founded the Jazzgroove association in order to create more performance and recording opportunities for Sydney’s younger players. The organization’s weekly gigs at the Excelsior Hotel not only showcase a range of players at different stages of development but also encourage a sense of community.

“The young people are on the pulse and everyone’s invigorating each other all the time,” says McMahon. “It forces us slightly older guys to look at what we’re doing and think about maybe some different ideas about music.”

Key among these ideas is the conception of music as unfettered by stylistic boundaries. Dogmatists may still patrol the frontiers of jazz like East German border guards but strict adherence to a tradition, particularly when it is narrowly defined, doesn’t appeal to a younger generation who take for granted a mix-and-match aesthetic.

While McMahon is thoroughly schooled in jazz, he finds the freedom inherent in such an approach very appealing. “Wayne Shorter, who was recently in town, when asked about the definition of jazz says for him it means no categories. It just means play music and then do whatever you want. There’s a sense in the music of the younger musicians here that that’s what we do.”

“You might find people playing pop music one night or playing totally improvised music the next night or playing something that looks more like it’s more from the jazz tradition the next night. But I think it’s all music.”

The pianist is off to work in China soon (“I love Shanghai - there’s a burgeoning jazz scene”) but has no immediate plans to base himself overseas.

“It saddens me sometimes when you run to where the action is instead of trying to get some action where you actually are,” he said. “I don’t have a burning desire to live in New York.”


Peter Jordan is a Sydney-based writer and editor. You can email him direct at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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