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30 October 2018

Sandy Evans and Andrea Keller: sharing the stage

Sandy Evans and Andrea Keller Image: Sandy Evans and Andrea Keller  
© Karen Steains - Natasha Blankfield

This November brings together, for the first time as a duo, two of Australia's best-known jazz artists, pianist Andrea Keller and saxophonist Sandy Evans. We asked the two incredibly busy women some questions about this, as well as their other current projects and commissions.

Sandy Evans and Andrea Keller have appeared together on occasion in one-off collaborations, but this November will find them performing each other's music for the first time as a duo: on 1 November at the Melbourne Recital Centre and on 3 November at the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues. Beyond this, Andrea Keller has just completed a new work for the Australian Art Orchestra, for performance at Wangaratta on 2 November and in London on 18 November (along with new works by Peter Knight and Tilman Robinson), and her Still Night project will be featured at the Sydney International Women's Jazz Festival on 8 November with Vince Jones. Another new work for the AAO, Hurry Slowly II, will be heard at Jazztoplad Wroclaw on 21 November.

Sandy Evans is preparing for the 2019 premiere of her major Bridge of Dreams project (12 January), featuring Australian and Indian musicians - the album is already available on iTunes/Apple Music. Another new work will see the light of day at the Melbourne Recital Centre on 7 December, with Tripataka and Sai-Sarangan Ravichandhira, and a new commission for the Monash Art Ensemble will get its premiere in Melbourne next week, on 8 November.

November performances in Melbourne and Wangaratta are the first time you appear together as a duo - what are we going to hear, and will there be more to come?

Sandy Evans
© Karen Steains

Sandy Evans: We will be playing original compositions by both of us, as well as a composition called Ping Pong by German saxophonist Silke Eberhard. Andrea and I collaborated with Silke last year at the Sydney International Women's Jazz Festival and really enjoyed her music and creative energy. I was lucky enough to record an improvised duo CD with Silke, called What She Sees, and went to Berlin to play with her in a duo in June this year (a highlight was doing a gig at a sax museum called Saxstall in a small town out of Dresden - we even got to play on original Adolphe Sax instruments, and I had a birthday cake covered in saxophones!).

My compositions will include a piece I composed especially for Andrea and me to play in a duo, called Lake Y + Pole. This is a composition from my RockPoolMirror series - musical responses to photographs taken by Belinda Webster at Lake Yarrunga in the Shoalhaven Gorge. We will also play a composition of mine from a long time ago - this is a ballad called 'Lilac Embers' that is from the very first Clarion Fracture Zone CD Blue Shift. The tune was inspired in part by Wayne Shorter; I know Andrea has a special interest in his music, so I thought it would be fantastic to play this composition with her. I'm very keen to play Andrea's compositions, which are truly sublime. Yes, I really hope our duo performances will continue!

Andrea Keller: One of the pieces I'm contributing I wrote especially for this duo. It's called Missed Opportunities and was written after an annoying (but now funny) incident occurred at an awards ceremony last year - I was nominated for an award that Sandy was presenting. On the night I was in the dressing room with two of my musical colleagues, waiting to be collected for our performance and the announcement of the award I'd been nominated for. My colleagues and I began sharing stories of our experiences as female jazz musicians, with all three of us expressing the unshakeable sense that we've missed many opportunities because we are women. Eventually we were collected, but when we reached the stage area I was told the award had already been announced, that I'd won, but had missed the opportunity to go out on stage to accept it from my hero!

How well do you know each other's work, what are your immediate thoughts about it and about each other as artists? Where is your common ground, and what might grow out of your obvious differences as artists and composers?

Andrea Keller
© Natasha Blankfield

AK: I've been listening to and admiring Sandy's music since I was in my early teens growing up in Sydney. From the moment I became enamoured with jazz music I started going out to hear as much of it live as I could. I heard Sandy play many times at the Manly Jazz Festival, Bondi Beach, and with Ten Part Invention. I was (and still am) blown away by how much guts and strength she has in her sound and technical facility. She doesn't hold anything back - the way she approaches music is fearless! This continues to be a great inspiration and a reminder to me.

Our common ground is that we're both improvisers working within the same tradition. We both have extended interests into other areas as well, but we view and incorporate these in a way that's unique to improvisers. I hold Sandy in incredibly high esteem, she has always been so gracious, generous and encouraging towards me. With mutual respect, a deep love of playing and improvising, and the belief in promoting original music, positive, fulfilling, and highly individualistic things grow.

SE: I love so many things about her music that it's hard to know where to begin. There is always something fresh about Andrea's approach to composition, regardless of the style, tempo, orchestration or aesthetic of the particular piece. This makes her stand out as an artist who has a very strong, individual and important creative voice.

She makes a fantastic sound on the piano and seems to be able to do this regardless of the quality of the instrument she is playing! She is a very supportive and inventive accompanist, and an extraordinary listener. She has a strong, but flexible rhythmic flow to her playing and an immaculate technique. Some of her compositions reveal an amazing talent she has to develop a simple, strong idea into a sophisticated, richly nuanced composition. She can manipulate harmonic sequences and melodic motifs with incredible ease, getting a lot of value out of the material she is working with. She has a great sense of colour and timbre. She also creates interesting musical forms, rarely using the standard 'head, solos, head' format that is ubiquitous in jazz. She carefully interweaves improvised sections into through-composed pieces, giving the soloist interesting and liberating spaces that fit within the fabric of the overall structure, but don't restrict the soloist.

In terms of common ground and differences, I like to think of this in terms of intersectionality - we both have very diverse interests, many of which overlap. Both of us are often doing many different kinds of projects more or less at the same time. Andrea probably has a more extensive connection to Western classical music than me, and has explored this more overtly in some of her projects and compositions. I am also interested in and inspired by many elements of Western classical music (my early background was playing classical flute) and think this has influenced some of my musical approaches, but not as obviously as Andrea. I have probably explored more connections with some types of Asian music. But I think we share a great deal in terms of musical interests.

I also have a huge respect for Andrea as a human being - she is visionary, kind, gracious, generous, patient, determined and humble. Both of us are keen to see more women in jazz and improvised music and have done various things throughout our careers to encourage this, but I think we have both primarily tried to do this through our own creative work. It will be great to play with Andrea in Ellen Kirkwood's suite [A]part at Wangaratta (3 November) as well.

If you could trade places for a week or a month, which project of Andrea's/Sandy's would you be most keen to be involved in?

SE: I wouldn't mind borrowing Gian Slater's voice and musical brain and having a go at Still Night.

AK: I'm a big Ten Part Invention fan (I was even lucky enough to perform my tunes with them over two concerts in Sydney back in 2009), so I'd happily play in that band for any length of time! I also played with Sandy's trio (with Brett Hirst and Toby Hall) at Stonnington Jazz Festival last year, and that was an amazingly uplifting experience for me - I could definitely spend more time doing that!

Andrea, you have been working on a new commission for the AAO, which genre-wise, as I understand, resides somewhere between jazz and contemporary classical music. This seems to be an area that you've been occupying increasingly, can you tell us a bit more about this development?

AK: The AAO asked me to write a piece for their 'Sometimes Home Can Grow Stranger Than Space' program, which illuminates stories of people's return to civilian life post WWI. I've developed a piece that draws on the stories of four women. Their circumstances and the events of their lives are all very different, yet there's a sense of unification - the unifying factor is the world's expectations of them, and the differences are the ways they found to deal with and surpass these.

Musically, I've always been interested in a vast array of sounds/composers/musicians. I feel a deep connection to jazz, and think improvisation is one of our highest art forms, but I don't just hear music one way, I'm always searching for ways to make my music better. I'm on a path trying to figure out how to create music that is closer to telling my truth, deepening my understanding and connection, and fine-tuning my listening to find previously undiscovered beauties, which may only reveal themselves in sporadic glimpses, but I'm hoping one day will saturate me. I think if you're aiming for this, you need to be drawing on every tool you can possibly find!

For the past few years, I've been really interested in the music of Arvo Pärt, his use of patterns, creating logical structures, using minimal material to maximum effect, so there's a lot of that thinking in my work 'Bent Heart', alongside creating spaces for improvisation.

Sandy, you have, over your career, drawn inspiration from Indian music and collaborated with some unique artists in your projects. There's more to come this year and next - can you talk a bit about how Indian music has influenced your own, and where you're headed with these current projects?

SE: In 1996 I sat on stage in New Delhi as a member of the Australian Art Orchestra and heard Guru Kaaraikkudi Mani (Mani-Sir) perform a breathtaking Tani Avartanam with ghatam player T.V. Vasan. That was to be the first of many times I would experience the energy, imagination, intuition, intellect, virtuosity, tradition, innovation, warmth, and humanity of this renowned mridangam player. During our collaborations, he would often express his belief that the Carnatic rhythmic system had much to offer all musicians.

My first creative forays 'into the fire'1 of Carnatic rhythmic ideas were as a composer. It was to be some years before I could see a way into this rhythmic matrix as an improviser on a melody instrument. An epiphany came during an AAO tour of India in 2007 when I was the fourth member of a formidable wind section comprising flautist B.V. Balasai, bass trombonist Adrian Sherriff, and trumpet player Scott Tinkler. It was a revelation to hear Balasai bring the complex mathematical calculations of Carnatic music to life melodically in an improvised solo. The improvisations of Adrian and Scott had different, but equally significant effects on my rhythmic and melodic conception. Thanks to their collective example, I became focused on expanding and developing the rhythmic syntax of my improvisatory language.

My epiphany wasn't just about rhythms, numbers, and calculations; it was about the expression of feelings and emotions in music. Before the 2007 tour, I studied briefly in Sydney with vocalist Sarangan Sriranganathan to learn something about 'Carnatic' inflections to help my melodic phrasing of some of the repertoire for the tour. I became captivated by the sublime beauty and deep feelings that Sarangan, like Balasai, could express in his improvisations, and was drawn into the study of raga. These experiences led me to continue studying Carnatic music with Sarangan and, when circumstances permitted, with Mani-Sir and Balasai. My interest in developing these areas of my improvisatory practice interwove with my ongoing participation in a number of intercultural improvising ensembles, including the AAO's collaborations with Mani-Sir's ensemble Sruthi Laya, and projects in Sydney with tabla player Bobby Singh.

I have two major projects coming up that build on these collaborations: heart|rhythm|love and Bridge of Dreams. Both of these projects have been made possible through an Australia Council Fellowship, and the composition of Bridge of Dreams was funded through the APRA AMCOS Art Music Fund.

heart|rhythm|love will be premiered at the Melbourne Recital Centre Salon on 7 December. It is a collaboration between myself and Tripataka: Adrian Sherriff (bass trombone, percussion), Jonathan Dimond (electric bass), Adam King (drums) with special guest Sai Sarangan (mridangam). This suite is written and performed in honour of mridangam virtuoso Guru Kaaraikudi Mani in gratitude for his brilliance, wisdom, inspiration, guidance, generosity and friendship in music and in life. Tripataka are a brilliant Melbourne-based ensemble who have tremendous depth of knowledge in all aspects of music, and particular expertise in translating ideas from Carnatic music onto Western instruments. Sai Sarangan is a very accomplished mrdangam player from Melbourne - it's thanks in large part to Sai's father, Ravi Ravichandra (a disciple of Guru Kaaraikudi Mani), we are fortunate to have a strong culture of Carnatic music in Melbourne. This concert will also feature some of Tripataka's compositions.

Bridge of Dreams is an epic work celebrating the creative dialogue between some eminent musicians from India and Australia: Shubha Mudgal (composition/voice), Aneesh Pradhan (composition/tabla), Sudhir Nayak (harmonium), Sirens Big Band (led by Jessica Dunn), me (composition/musical director/saxophone soloist) and Bobby Singh (tabla). The work is co-composed by myself, Aneesh Pradhan and Shubha Mudgal, and it will be premiered at City Recital Hall on Saturday 12 January under the umbrella of the Sydney Festival, with support from Sydney Improvised Music Association (SIMA).

Shubha Mudgal is one of India's most highly regarded Hindustani vocalists and has received many awards including Padma Shri from the Government of India. Both Shubha and Aneesh are internationally renowned Indian musicians with a strong track record of successful intercultural collaboration. Aneesh is also Bobby Singh's guru. They are pioneering new ways of thinking about intercultural music with groups like Asian Fantasy Orchestra (JAPAN) and Ensemble Moderne (GER). They perform and record regularly in India and internationally.

We have been working hard on this project for several years now. It's amazing to see it finally come to fruition! The idea grew in my mind from experiences touring with Ben Walsh's 'Fearless Nadia' in India. During this tour, I discovered that Bobby, Aneesh and Sudhir and I shared commitment to deepening the exchange of ideas between jazz musicians and Indian musicians. This led to a creative development period Aneesh and Shubha in Mumbai during a 2014 Churchill Fellowship.

Jessica Dunn, leader of Sirens Big Band, asked me if I would be interested in collaborating with Sirens on a project. I proposed this idea and the collaboration grew from there. Subsequently, Aneesh has come to Sydney for an intensive workshop and Jess, Bobby and I travelled to Mumbai (in June last year) to complete the compositions and record the Indian performers for the CD. The Sirens recorded their parts this year at Sony Studios. As well as face to face meetings, it would have been impossible to do an international project like this without the internet; we have exchanged a lot of ideas in Skype sessions and via email etc.

The 'Bridge of Dreams' album will be featured by Apple Music in India, and around the world, on 7 November during Diwali - one of India's most significant festivals. This is pretty special for us! And the album will have its Australian release on 17 November through Rufus Records.

One more question to Sandy - you also have a premiere of a new commission coming up with the Monash Art Ensemble on 8 November, in a concert with new works also by Johannes Luebbers and Paul Williamson. Your work is called The Drunkard's Walk; can you give a few more details please?

This work is inspired by Leonard Mlodinow's book The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives (2008). The title The Drunkard's Walk comes from a mathematical term describing random motion, and mathematical, stochastic and behavioural phenomena described in the book have guided and inspired the composition. This version of The Drunkard's Walk features Steps 1, 3, 5 and 11. It is a realisation of conceptual ideas from a 'meta-process-score' that I intend to eventually publish as an ebook. I hope this will be a flexible, modular resource for musicians, band directors and educators worldwide to explore the continuum of composed/improvised music with diverse groups of musicians. It will be adaptable for ensembles of different sizes and instrumentation; engaging for musicians from diverse stylistic backgrounds; accessible, but nevertheless challenging, for musicians of all levels. I'm really excited by how the rehearsals are sounding!


1 Into the Fire was the name given by Paul Grabowsky to the AAO's initial collaboration with Mani-Sir, and also the title of the first CD (2000) of the project, and the title given to Adrian Sherriff's arrangement of Mani-Sir's composition 'Vasantha Pravaham'. 'Sacred Cow's Tail' is one of my first compositions in this vein. It is published on the AAO CD The Chennai Sessions (2009).

AMC resources

Sandy Evans - AMC profile and resources

Andrea Keller - AMC profile and resources

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