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14 February 2020

As seen by a friend & colleague: Tony Gould at 80 years young

Tony Gould Image: Tony Gould  

Tony Gould's 80th birthday has been celebrated this month with special gigs in Melbourne - we asked Tony's long-term friend and colleague Rob Burke to write down his thoughts about making music with the extraordinary pianist, composer and improviser. A new album Live Again! by the Burke Gould Quartet was released at the end of 2019 on the Jazzhead label and is available via Bandcamp.

At the age of 15, in 1977, I walked into Melbourne University to meet one of the biggest names in Australian jazz: Tony Gould. Through a musical friend, I was afforded the opportunity to partake in his jazz class with students that were wishing to learn about jazz as an elective, to extend their musical learning in what was then a focus on classical music at the conservatorium. This experience was eye-opening for me, as Tony taught with passion and expertise and always supported his point with exquisite examples on the piano. He was inclusive in his teaching and made the class 'real' through humorous anecdotes, metaphors and, of course, a couple of jokes that made the experience enjoyable and are such an idiosyncratic characteristic of Tony Gould the person.

On reflection, these were touchstone moments that inspired me in the art of improvisation: to search for new ideas and aim to be excellent in the performance on my instrument. Since this time, I have been fortunate to be able to perform with Tony on a regular basis, be it in the jazz club, concert platform or in a recording studio. The standard for us was to create beautiful music and try new things: to experiment!

Tony Gould turned 80 at the start of February this year and, as a long-term friend and colleague, I was asked to write a short opinion piece on Tony... and so, I have decided to give a brief insight, from a musician's perspective, of Tony Gould the improviser.

I would describe Tony as a polymath. He is constantly reading and writing. He reads extensively about music, but also outside music, and so has a great understanding of what is happening currently in the world, with historical context. Further, Tony's deep understanding of music has been nourished through extensive listening, especially classical music, jazz, and experimental music.

There are a couple of intentional gaps that make Tony quite unique. Tony has three dislikes in music . . . the three Bs: the blues, the Beatles and bebop. This was always an interesting discussion point between us at rehearsals, drinking wine, and at meals, which were at times passionate and sometimes contentious but always involving much laughter. In relation to Tony's performance, what I found interesting is the absence of these three Bs in Tony's library of sounds and ideas that he draws from when improvising. You don't hear any bebop and limited blues type language in Tony's improvisation: this is something quite rare in any 'jazz' musician that I have heard. In fact, Tony does not like to call himself a jazz musician. He much prefers 'improviser'. However, from my perspective, Tony swings like a jazz musician, he performs with jazz musicians and a fundamental of his playing, along with his classical approach to improvisation, is his jazz sensibility - his swing feel. He does not always play swing-style music but when he does play it is such a great example of what great swing time feel is!

Harmonically, Tony is a genius. His study of classical music, and specifically composers such as Mahler, Schubert, Stravinsky and Strauss, has been assimilated into his improvisation and composition that is both brilliant and unique. Unique, given that this is not a jazz musician creating a classical type project outside their usual jazz projects, it is something that has taken 70 years in the analysis, practice and experimentation in his playing to evolve. The documentation of this is evident in his extensive recording history, from playing with Brian Brown in the 1970s, to his many solo and small ensemble recordings. Listen to the construct of Tony's voicings and the agency in the subtle voice-leading that show the influences of someone with a rich understanding of music. For the listener, it is a journey from a modern musician who has imbued a deep understanding of styles and a sense of creating beauty in music.


In hearing Tony play the piano on recordings or in a live performance, the initial response to the sound he creates is the beauty of that sound. The detail is in the start and finish of each note. The transition through intervals to create tension and release without any noticeable struggle with sound production. Further, Tony's touch on the piano is sublime and a lesson to all musicians in the importance of how sound is one of the most important components of music-making. This has been a result of endless practice and of course learning with a classical sensibility

The introduction

Tony is legendary for his improvised introductions. Musicians that play with Tony, regularly discuss the 'introduction' experience when describing the gig or recording. Many times, in my performances with Tony, the only communication for starting a tune is a quick look over to the piano and a "you start", knowing that an extended introduction beckoned. The introductions were always improvised, sometimes starting outside the tune, but on most occasions the context of the composition emerged and set up possibilities for the ensemble.


Harmonically, Tony taught me an understanding of tonality. Like many jazz musicians, Tony knows thousands of tunes, be it jazz standards or folk tunes, and you can also add classical repertoire to Tony's knowledge. Tony has an excellent understanding of harmony, having extensively studied classical and jazz repertoire and methods of analysis through both teaching and his performance, which has allowed him to augment harmonically and feed ideas to the moment, be it in a solo situation or in an ensemble. He does this by assessing the tonality of the chord progression and adding and taking away chords. The fundamental premise of this approach is based on the aim to be creative within the tonality by being able to develop his own interpretation of accompaniment to the melody.

His choices are also based on his diverse but incredible understanding of harmony. In short, he is always respectful of the existing compositions but is creative by developing a clear logical and harmonic narrative over the set parameters of the composition. Also, Tony is a lover of changing keys as a form of emergence and arrangement. It also allows him to change the aesthetics of the improvisation through tension and release as part of the large dimensional listening experience.


Tony has a hidden mastery in his understanding of time/feel. When he plays it sounds rhythmically perfect, but often, he improvises with what it seems is no time feel. This is because of his deep understanding and his flexibility in manoeuvring in and out of different tempos. Tony can also play an active role in the interaction with complex drum solos without showing any deficiencies. I think this is something that is possibly innate with Tony because I have not played with a musician that has such an organic approach to time.

Tony and I have a quartet with bassist Nick Haywood and drummer Tony Floyd. As an ensemble, we have developed an understanding of malleable time creation. Sometimes we are 'in the time', sometimes 'outside' of it. The roles are constantly changing led by the power of the ideas. This ideology of negotiation and conversation was something that Tony led us through over the last 40 years.


An important consideration and attribute that Tony has continually espoused is that a musician needs to be able to play their instrument well: especially the art of playing softly, the ability to listen, to trust and to experiment. Tony Gould is a great example of this.


Finally, Tony Gould is a good bloke. He is very different to anyone I have ever met. Stubborn in his musical beliefs but with a very deep and idiosyncratic understanding of music which is reflected in his music-making. Tony continues to inspire and leave a huge legacy for us all to enjoy and learn from.

AMC resources

Tony Gould - AMC profile

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