"A splendid musical mind" LOS ANGELES TIMES
Australian-based pianist-composer Mark Isaacs (b. 1958) has pursued a unique and demanding career path that has seen him gain international recognition in both jazz and classical music. Such diversity was nurtured in the crucible of a highly musical family.
Mark's uncle was the legendary British jazz guitarist Ike Isaacs, who worked for many years with jazz violinist Stephane Grapelli and was on friendly terms with many of the biggest names in jazz. Duke Ellington came for dinner one time and there were visits from George Benson, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel and many others. As Mark grew older he would have informal jams with some of the famous musicians who would visit the Isaacs household.
Another uncle was violinist Kelly Isaacs who throughout his London-based career was a distinguished soloist, chamber musician and orchestral player. Through his “classical uncle” Mark was able to experience first-hand the highest level of the world classical scene, with connections to Yehudi Menuhin, the London Symphony Orchestra and others.
Mark's father is an accomplished jazz guitarist and songwriter who had one of his songs recorded and released by Petula Clark and his mother had been trained as a classical pianist and is a fine jazz vocalist.
Mark's family on both his parents' sides were of Iraqi Jewish origins, but had lived in Burma for several generations. His parents emigrated to London as young adults, where Mark was born. The family emigrated again to Australia when Mark was four.
Mark began piano studies at age five and it was soon discovered that he had perfect pitch. His mother would play Chopin for him, and his father would sit on the end of his bed at night and play the chord changes to jazz standards without the melody, Mark's job being to guess the tune from the harmonies alone. Beginning around age nine, Mark began to experiment with improvising on jazz standards.
From age twelve Mark began a ferocious interest in classical composition and began to compose orchestral and chamber works which received high profile public performances and for which he won many awards and scholarships throughout his teens. At the age of 15 he performed the solo part is his own piano concerto live on Australian national television. During those high school years he studied classical piano, composition, theory, counterpoint, orchestration, chamber music performance, jazz ensemble work and big band arranging in an intense program of classes and private lessons after school.
He began University studies in classical piano and composition initially in Sydney, while at the same time being recognised as one of the major emerging jazz players in Australia, recording his first jazz album as leader while barely out of his teens.
From his early 20s Mark travelled extensively, and as well as a busy professional life he spent periods of time checking out jazz in New York and Europe, studying piano and composition at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem, doing a conducting course with Sergiu Celidibache and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, finishing his Bachelor of Music degree in classical composition and piano at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and ultimately completing a Master of Music degree in classical music at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in the USA. His teachers in classical music included many internationally recognised composers and pianists such as Peter Sculthorpe, Isadore Goodman, Alexander Tamir, David Burge, Joseph Tal, Igor Hemelnitsky and Samuel Adler.
In 1996 he was awarded a two-year Music Fellowship by the Australia Council for the Arts.
Mark has been commissioned to compose pieces for such prominent Australian ensembles as the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Seymour Group, Sydney String Quartet, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Synergy, The Australian Voices, Sydney Metropolitan Opera Company, Perihelion and the Australia Ensemble, the latter performing one of his pieces at their Carnegie Hall recital in 1988. His pieces have also been performed in Berlin, London, the USA, Amsterdam (by the renowned Calefax wind quintet), Japan, India, China and released on disc internationally.
In 1994 Mark played the solo part in the premiere of his own piano concerto in St Petersburg Philharmonic Hall with the St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra, appearing within hours in a major jazz festival in the same city. Two years later he was a prize-winner in the first Tokyo International Competition for Chamber Music Composition. In 1996 he composed an oratorio which took a fresh perspective on the Joan of Arc story. For its premiere Mark conducted over 1000 performers at the Sydney Opera House. A more recent orchestral composition was premiered under the baton of internationally-renowned conductor Kristjan Järvi.
Mark has also composed music for film, television and the theatre (most recently writing a jazz score for the Sydney Theatre Company production of Three Days of Rain by renowned New York playwright Richard Greenburg) and he also writes songs (including lyrics). Mark has conducted his music with major Australian orchestras and recorded recitals of classical piano repertoire. He is involved with the Australian musical community as a commentator, activist and committee member having served for two years on the NSW Ministry of the Arts Music Committee and an Australia Council committee, as well as writing reviews and columns in major publications and founding and editing the Australian jazz website OZJAZZFORUM.
Parallel with his work as a composer/pianist/conductor in classical music, his jazz career has taken him on tours around the world and into some legendary company. He recorded the album Encounters in New York, leading a towering rhythm-section of bassist Dave Holland and drummer Roy Haynes, two of the artform's most esteemed international figures. This album was released twice in Australia and in Europe on the veraBra label, to very strong acclaim. Other major recording projects have included the 4-CD set of improvised solo piano music The Elements released on ABC Music.
Mark has toured and recorded as leader with the great Canadian jazz trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, for whom he wrote the three-movement Elders Suite. Apart from many tours, performances and festival appearances in Europe, the USA, Asia, Australia & New Zealand and the Pacific, he has made six tours of Russia including a 1995 15-city tour with his jazz trio that culminated in a concert at Moscow's famous Tchaikowsky Hall, where he also did a solo recital in 1996. On this same tour he played a concert in Vladivostok where he performed his own piano concerto with symphony orchestra before intermission, returning to the stage after intermission leading his jazz trio in what was remarkable programming for an artist at any level.
Mark's jazz CD Closer was released internationally on the Naxos Jazz label in October 2000 and received rave reviews in the USA, Europe and Australia.
In July 2002 Mark made a one-week appearance at the prestigious Pori International Jazz Festival, Finland leading a trio with world-renowned New York players Jay Anderson (bass) and Adam Nussbaum (drums). The Finland appearances were part of a 5-week world tour which also included performances in New York, Russia, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Hanoi (including the Hanoi Opera House) and Tokyo.
Other projects in 2002 included a new commission Kensington Rags premiered by the internationally-distinguished chamber group the Australia Ensemble, Australian appearances (including the Wangaratta Jazz Festival) plus a live CD recording with Jay Anderson and Adam Nussbaum and a recording of solo classical piano repertoire.
In the same year Mark was the winner of the inaugural Miriam Hyde Composer-Pianist Award.
Major projects for 2003 included a commission from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for a concerto to be written for acclaimed Australian trumpeter James Morrison. Also in 2003 Mark joined distinguished former Sydney Symphony Orchestra Associate Principal cellist Trish O'Brien in the classical cello/piano duo Tapas which toured extensively in 2003 playing 15 concerts at a variety of venues and chamber music festivals as well a giving a live national broadcast on ABC Classic FM.
Mark returned to Finland in July 2003 for more performances at the Pori International Jazz Festival and after concerts in Russia he then headed for the USA to take part in the Art Omi International Musicians’ Residency, joining 14 selected international composer/performers in a 3-week collaboration in upstate New York which culminated in a concert at the Goethe Institute in New York City. Mark has been invited to be Guest Curator at the 2007 Residency. At the end of 2003 Mark composed a commission for the ARIA award-winning Australian classical guitar quartet Saffire.
Mark’s jazz CD Keeping the Standards recorded live at The Basement, Sydney and featuring Jay Anderson (bass) and Adam Nussbaum (drums) was released in February 2004 on Vorticity Music received rave reviews in the Australian and international press and was celebrated by an extensive Australian tour by his trio during February/March/April. Also in 2004 Mark composed a viola and piano work for distinguished Australian violist Deborah Lander. In July 2004 Mark toured Korea, Latvia, Estonia, Russia and Finland. Highlights of the tour included an appearance on South Korean national television, performances with American drummer Brian Melvin (ex-Jaco Pastorius) at the RigasRitmi Festival in Riga, Latvia and the Pori International Jazz Festival in Finland (the third year in a row Mark has been featured there) as well as several concerts in Russia (sixth tour there) that included a performance at Le Club, Moscow's major jazz venue. At the end of 2004 Mark composed his Third String Quartet for the internationally-acclaimed Tankstream Quartet.
Projects for the first part of 2005 included Mark’s appearance in Latvia in early March at the Liepaja International Piano Stars Festival, where he performed his own orchestrations for symphony orchestra and jazz trio. In late April he presented a two-night season in Sydney of the SIDE-WISE project, a new jazz sextet of Australian jazz luminaries performing his original compositions for the closing season of Sydney’s premier jazz venue the Side-On Café. In May Mark toured to Romania, Turkey and Thailand. He has been invited to record his debut CD as classical pianist for the Tall Poppies label, a disk of piano works by Erik Satie. Mark is also involved in working with the major performing arts venue Brisbane Powerhouse on curating their jazz festival program. He spent September 2005 in Jakarta, Indonesia on a performing & teaching residency. He continues to tour in Australia with his trio featuring outstanding young vocalist Elana Stone. At the end of 2005 he composed his Preludes for Piano Book II.
In early 2006 Mark’s latest jazz CD Visions was released on the Vorticity Music label and was followed by an Australian tour and he undertook a Senior Artist Residency at the property of the late Australian painter Arthur Boyd.
In late April he will premiere with the Australian Youth Orchestra a piano concerto composed especially for him by the Australian composer Stuart Greenbaum and later in the year he will undertake a new CD recording of his original jazz compositions in Los Angeles with a band comprising Australian and American players.