jazzahead! with Peter Knight, Artistic Director of the Australian Art Orchestra

Wednesday, 11 Mar 2015

jazzahead! is an international conference and showcase event in Germany in April. Judging by the name, ‘jazz ahead’, it’s the place to be for contemporary, forward-thinking jazz composers. 

Peter Knight, Artistic Director of the Australian Art Orchestra, has been to jazzahead! as a delegate a number of times. This year, however, Peter will lead the AAO in a special showcase opportunity the AAO have been selected to perform at this keystone European event.

“The one thing about jazzahead! is, it’s not the place for generic forms of jazz. No one is really interested in your standard swing jazz approach. They want to hear contemporary, forward-thinking adventurous music.”

Hence why The Australian Art Orchestra is the only Australian group showcasing and one of just eight non-European groups selected. “It is a very competitive process actually,” says Peter. ”It’s not that easy to get a showcase, so we’re really happy that they chose us. At the same time, I wasn’t totally surprised. The Art Orchestra is an excellent group…and the project we are performing doesn’t sound like anything else in the world.”

Peter’s right. The Australian Art Orchestra’s performance at jazzahead! will showcase Crossing Roper Bar, a unique project featuring two traditional songmen from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. “It’s one of our longest running collaborations,” says Peter. “It was started by Paul Grabowsky, the founding Artistic Director of the AAO, about 12 years ago.”

Crossing Roper Bar started when Paul Grabowsky met some friends working in the Northern Territory. “He said, ‘Look, I’m really interested in working with and learning about the different cultures up here – can you take me out to meet some people to talk about music?’ That’s how he met David and Daniel…and there was an immediate connection.”

David Wilfred, who plays the Yidakki (didgeridoo) and Daniel Wilfred, who does vocals and plays Bilma (clapsticks) have performed with the AAO in Crossing Roper Bar ever since. Peter says that this desire to connect and collaborate with Indigenous culture from South East Arnhem Land was a very conscious desire on the part of Paul Grabowsky. And it’s the unique quality of music they create together that stood the AAO apart in the selection process for jazzahead!

“They still practice the traditional music… which is one of the oldest, or rather the oldest, continuous musical tradition in the world,” says Peter. “It’s just extraordinary… even though Paul isn’t Artistic Director anymore, he still performs and plays piano in that project. He is definitely the project’s creative leader.” 

It’s this cross-cultural collaboration that makes the AAO what it is. “We do a lot of different projects with musicians from many different cultures and genres. We premiered our work with a traditional Korean p’ansori singer last year. In July we’re travelling to Chengdu in China’s Sichuan province to premiere another new project.”

“That’s what we’re trying to do at the AAO – we’re all about redefining people’s notions of jazz and redefining people’s notion of an orchestra. We try to imagine what Australian music could sound like, for today, incorporating all the influences around us.”

The AAO’s jazzahead! showcase of Crossing Roper Bar will be the first time German audiences have seen this music performed live. After their breathtaking performance at MONAFOMA in January, Peter is confidant the audience there won’t be disappointed. “When I’ve gone to jazzahead! in the past, it’s the Australian Indigenous music that people have been most interested in… it’s what people there really want to know about. So it’s really exciting to take that energy over to Germany. It will be wonderful to see how people will respond.” 

Peter says opportunities do exist for Australian jazz composers overseas at events like Jazzahead!. “Our contemporary jazz scene is incredibly strong by any measure globally. However we definitely need the support of an organisation like Sounds Australia.”

2015 will be the first year Sounds Australia, our music export organisation, will have a presence at jazzahead!. For contemporary composers like Peter Knight, it’s an exciting move in the right direction. “Sounds Australia will really help us realize the full potential of this scene overseas. It’s really promising to see this organisation, that has already done such great work for Australian music at events like SXSW, to recognize this potential and jump onboard jazzahead! this year.” 

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