15 Australian jazz trailblazers you ought to know about

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15 Australian jazz trailblazers you ought to know about

Words by Will Brewster

The US may get to claim the genres as its own, but Australia boasts a fair share of jazz credibility too.

As the brazen new style began to infiltrate the mainstream throughout the 20th century, post-war Australia began to adopt the stylings of American trailblazers such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gilespie and put their own twist on things, with the ’60s and ’70s seeing a huge growth in the genre Down Under.

Nowadays, jazz is a widespread phenomenon around the country, with institutions like Melbourne’s Monash University, Sydney’s UNSW and the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts helping to churn out a new generation of talents to keep the genre thriving here.

Today, we’re taking a break from the usual din we tend to publish in order to cast an eye to the contemporary talents that power the country’s jazz output, exploring 15 of the most important and exciting jazz instrumentalists operating in Australia today.

James Morrison 

If there’s any single figure you need to know about in the Aussie jazz scene, it’s James Morrison. While he’s best known for his virtuosic ability on the trumpet, Morrison’s regarded in jazz circles as a multi-instrumentalist with mind-boggling chops, with his ARIA Gold-certified 1990 album Snappy Doo showcasing his talents on trombone, saxophone, clarinet and tuba – just to name a few. A bonafide legend with an unparalleled legacy in the educational sector, there’s few jazz giants in the world quite like James Morrison.

Stephen Magnusson ​

When it comes to contemporary Australian jazz guitarists, few players can amount to what Stephen Magnusson’s got to offer. Whether he’s leading the slippery electric jazz-fusion of his own trio MAG or guesting on records with the likes of Archie Roach, Vince Jones or the late Charlie Haden, Magnusson’s intricate fingerstyle technique and tastefully melodic soloing will never fail to prick the ears of even the most seasoned of jazz gurus.

Ben Waples ​

A stalwart of Sydney’s thriving jazz scene, Ben Waples is an absolute force to be reckoned with on the double bass. Appearing on a number of acclaimed Aussie jazz releases throughout the 2000s – often alongside his equally gifted drummer brother James – Waples’ playing is informed by space, nuance and groove, and it’s rare that he’ll ever play an off note with bass in hand. Ben can also be heard flexing his chops further with his own solo project Donny Benét, combining his monstrous bass playing with retro synths and dash of culinary humour to sublime effect.

Linda May Han Oh​

Born in Malaysia and raised in Perth, multi-instrumentalist Linda May Han Oh began to dabble in bass guitar in her teens, where an obsession with Red Hot Chili Peppers helped to reveal her immense talent on the instrument. After a stint at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Linda quickly established herself as an in-demand session bassist, and would go on to receive critical acclaim for her 2012 and 2013 LPs Initial Here and Sun Pictures. Nowadays, Linda May Han Oh is an integral member of legendary fusion guitarist Pat Metheny’s live band, which is just about as good a gig as you could ever hope to land.

Paul Grabowsky ​

A Juilliard-trained pianist who abandoned the classical repertoire in his teens to pursue jazz after being exposed to the works of Bill Evans and Bud Powell, Paul Grabowsky is a total master of his craft, and he’s only gotten better and better with age. He’s one of the country’s most celebrated jazz artists, having won seven ARIAs and seven APRA awards for his recorded output across the last thirty years, and was even awarded the Order of Australia for his contributions to the country’s scene.

Johnathan Zwartz​

Sure, he was born in New Zealand, but when did that ever stop us from claiming Split Enz or Dragon as our own? After getting his start as the bassist for Kiwi pop exports The Crocodiles in the early ‘80s, Johnathan Zwartz jumped the ditch and began to assert himself as one of the best upright bassists in the Pacific region, performing in Vince Jones’ backing group in the ‘90s before going solo in 2009 with his acclaimed debut The Sea. Check out his suite The Epic, and you’ll understand what all the fuss is about.

Andrea Keller ​

A prodigal pianist from an early age, Andrea Keller honed her talents at Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts throughout the ‘90s, studying improvisation and establishing herself as a local sensation among Victorian players. A must-see player on the live circuit both solo and in ensembles, Keller is renowned for her virtuosic grasp of improvisation just as much as she is her forward-thinking compositional tricks – listen to the performance below, where she combines reversed loops with clever counterpoint to make for a stunning composition.

Sandy Evans

Representing the pinnacle of Australian jazz for nearly 40 years, Sandy Evans is one of the nation’s most exciting saxophonists, appearing on over 30 records and being a pivotal force in the educational sector. Channeling the free-spirited playing of US trailblazers such as Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman, Evans’ playing is cosmic as hell, and her drive to collaborate with artists from all corners of the globe has almost certainly taken Australian jazz up a notch in the eyes of players on the world stage. A recipient of the Order of Australia and a lecturer at UNSW, Sandy Evans is nothing short of sensational.

Rai Thistlethwayte​

While he’s better known as the lead vocalist and guitarist of 2000s Aussie rockers Thirsty Merc, anyone who’s clued into the landscape of Australian music will know where Rai Thistlethwayte’s talents shine through the brightest: jazz, baby. Thistlethwayte is a certified guru on the keys, and his ability to play two totally independent keys parts while simultaneously singing his heart out – a la D’Angelo – needs to be seen to be believed.

Jim Kelly 

A founding member of acclaimed Aussie jazz-fusion cohort Crossfire and one of the most celebrated jazz guitarists of the modern age, Jim Kelly is an absolute titan. Since the 1970s, he’s been tearing it up on stages across the world, with his playing style fusing the technicality of jazz improvisation and the smokey, soulful tones of blues guitar to make for a killer combo. Nowadays, Jim runs his own studio in Lismore called Tone Ranger, and is considered by many to be one of the best jazz producers operating in the country today.

Ross Irwin​

There’s a lot of talent in the instrumental section of beloved Melbourne party starters The Cat Empire, but if you had to be picky and choose one member to spotlight, it’s got to be Ross Irwin. A sensational trumpet player and a pedigree composer and arranger to boot, Irwin has also lent his talents on the talent to fellow Melbourne soul outfit The Bamboos, as well touring alongside the likes of Megan Washington, Julia Stone and Vance Joy. If you’re familiar with the playing of Miles Davis, you’ll definitely get a kick out of Irwin’s scale-busting horn lines – the man rips.

Holly Norman

Any musician will attest to the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to sing and play at the same time, but singing and drumming is just something else entirely. Throw jazz in the mix, and you’re looking at the near impossible – that is, unless you’re Melbourne’s Holly Norman. Known for her incredibly spacious, deft touch on the drums and her sweet singing voice, Holly also works as an event programmer and is also regarded as a pretty mean yoga teacher, and even runs her own dedicated yoga course for drummers. Talk about commitment.

Barney McAll​

Another keynote jazz pianist with Australian roots, Barney McAll departed the country to pursue an international career in the ‘90s, where he immersed himself in the famous jazz scene of New York and well and truly came out on top. Now recognised as one of the best pianists in the world, McAll can be found regularly playing with legendary funk trombonist Fred Wesley – the very same who played with James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic – as well as previously playing with the likes of Roy Ayers, Kenny Garret, Maceo Parker and Sia.

Julien Wilson 

A tenor saxophone sensation with a tone unlike any other, Julien Wilson’s jazz pedigree has seen him play on more than 80 records in the span of 20 years, and his chops on the horn have picked up considerable acclaim both at home and abroad. Boasting a killer tone and not too shy to get experimental with effects and contemporary stylings, Wilson could very well be the future of Australian jazz, and his prowess in the improvisational department is ridiculously good.

Simon Barker

Maybe one of the most enigmatic figures in the Australian jazz scene, Simon Barker is a true dynamo in every sense of the word. A prodigal drummer with an uncanny sense for groove – watch his J Dilla drum tribute for proof – Barker recovered from a musical slump after discovering the intricate rhythms of traditional Korean music, studying the culture’s circular rhythms and implementing them into his own playing to result in a wonderful fusion of Western and Eastern styles. Barker now lectures at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, teaching a whole new generation of budding Aussie drummers to think outside the box and break free from the norm – just as any good jazz artist should.

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