Simon Starr

Postcard from Israel: Simon Starr

Since graduating from the VCA, Simon Starr (BMusPerf 1993) has worked constantly as a session musician as well as composing and performing in ensembles of his own.

By Alix Bromley

Musician Simon Starr has augmented his skills by studying with Gary Peacock, Dave Holland and Andrew Moon, which has held him in good stead for performances with renowned musicians from every genre.

Simon has released seven albums with his group Frock, two albums with his own original bourgeois rock project, the debut album of his Jewish Fusion project AJME, and has played on countless others.

This year he has already performed in Germany, Canada, New York and around Australia, and was also Artistic Consultant to the White City Music Festival which brought more than 30 international artists to Tel Aviv. Simon is concentrating on his original projects at the moment, and the Moroccan/Andalusian fusion project of pianist Omri Mor.

He is currently living in Israel and this month returns to Melbourne to perform with Israeli-born tenor saxophonist and recently appointed Artistic Director of the Red Sea Jazz Festival Eli Degibri.

Q&A with Simon

VCA: You’re currently based in Israel – why prompted the move and how will you be there?

Simon Starr: We [my wife, children and I] moved here for many different reasons, among which were thirst for adventure, desire to shake our lives up and grow from new challenges, have our children be challenged and learn a new language. Among the main ones was the incredible diversity and quality of the Israeli music scene, where the standard in all facets of music is just so incredibly high. I wanted to start again and participate in what looks to me like an unbelievably exciting scene. We haven’t made any decisions about the length of our stay, so far we have been here for 2.5 years, and we are having a great time, and I am involved in some tremendous projects, but the money is flowing in slower than what we need, so we will have to reassess things and possibly return to our glorious bourgeois lifestyle in Melbourne.

VCA: Do you prefer to perform or compose? 

SS: I love performing my compositions the most. I like performing them with musicians who can really add their own personalities to the mix. I am not an overly controlling composer to play with, as I prefer to hear what the others will contribute. Performing is very cathartic for me, some sort of spastic gyrating emotional release, regardless of instrument or style. I am aware that I look quite scary when doing it, in total contrast to how I feel which is aiming for transcendence. Playing solo doesn’t interest me a whole lot, I spend enough time by myself, and like the aspect of conversation and support in performance and the mateship that comes out of playing with people.

VCA: You’ve worked with some of the world’s great musicians — who would you say were the most memorable?

SS: I am currently performing with Omri Mor – it is simply a matter of time, in my humble opinion, before he is recognised as one of the greatest pianists ever, in any style. A hyper-intense guy with an insatiable groove and lush romanticism, and completely mad as well. I am not exaggerating when I say that nearly every single musician I have played with in Israel is absolutely world class, they are so creative, passionate and technically accomplished – they become memorable more for their offstage personality than anything else, which mostly revolves around eating, talking shit and a lot of hugs (they are an affectionate bunch). There are many from Melbourne who I love playing with and who have been memorable, but I would have to say that one of the most influential times was when I played with Melbourne pianist Jex Saarelhat. I was a few months out of the VCA, and him screaming and slamming the piano lid in response to my mistakes during the performance. I resolved immediately to become a better sight-reader, a better player of odd time, and to always keep cool on stage so that I could serve the music.

VCA: You studied with Dave Holland in 1994-5 then you went on to study with Gary Peacock in 2004 — How did your New York experience shape you as a musician?

SS: The time I spent with Dave Holland was very reassuring – he liked what I was into and encouraged me to continue on the non-traditional double bass path I was taking, as well as being inspired to practice more. Gary Peacock was a revelation – his inspiration is ongoing –he emphasised to the exclusion of all else aural skills, and the development of a personal language, and gave me some tools about how to pursue that, which I have personalised since then and am certainly much further down the path of honest self expression through music than I was before I met him. I was particularly attracted to his Zen studies and how it influenced his performance headspace, which has been another influence. In terms of New York itself, I have been there many times, and I like it a lot, but I get a bit freaked out by the tall buildings, feel a bit claustrophobic there. One of the things I got from being there over the years is that the scene in Melbourne is great, and that the good players in Melbourne are as good as anywhere else in the world, which may seem a truism, but the distance factor does take local musicians out of a global mindset in the scope of their work.

VCA: In this year’s Melbourne International Jazz Festival program, you’ll be performing with Eli Degibri. How did this come about?

SS: Eli’s manager contacted me to see if I wanted to get together and have a blow with Eli, and we did and it seemed to go well. There was a concert coming up in a month or two, and I mentioned this to Megan and Michael Tortoni [insert link to Michael Tortoni MIJF feature] at Bennett’s and told them about outstanding artists I was playing with, who also deserved wider recognition — among which was Eli. I am thrilled to be coming and playing in Melbourne with him, and particularly Gadi with whom I have played a number of times and who is a great person to hang with.

VCA: Why did you decide to pursue a career in this field?

SS: I auditioned for the VCA and, to my shock, got in, and then by the time I graduated, I was playing eight shows a week, and after a few years it became my default life. As I have continued on the path, I have gotten much deeper in to it, and am always finding new things to love about it.

VCA: Tell me about your first career break

SS: There wasn’t really something like that, but I guess it would be getting my first residency with a Johnson St Salsa band while at the VCA, and in the same week being asked to play with a musician who was from the year above me at the VCA ( the wonderful Adam Simmons (BMusPerf (1992) with whom I still play whenever we can). These things didn’t open big doors, but showed me how much fun music could be, and gave me the impetus to keep practicing, which I never did a whole lot of.

VCA: With whom do you still stay in contact? 

SS: From VCA from my year – Matt Earl “the Pearl” (BMusPerf, 1994), Bobby “the Brain” Parolin (BMusPerf, 1993), occasionally run in to Nicola Eveleigh (BMusPerf, 1994) and Julien Wilson (BMusPerf, 1994). From anyone who was atVCA – tonnes of people – most of my current Australian musician friends.

VCA: Why did you choose to study at the VCA?

SS: I chose to study there as my brother suggested it would be a good idea, and it wasn’t a laborious process at all – I applied, auditioned, miraculously got in, and then grew enormously from there, as I was easily the worst player on any instrument when I got in. Being at the VCA brought me in to contact with many great musicians, as well as listening to new stuff. But above everything else, it is an Art institute, not a technical institute, and the emphasis is on finding your own voice. Brian Brown was very strong on this, and it strongly influenced my approach to music, in every situation. It is so important to remember that each performance is an opportunity to express some basic primal truths about your life, and if you work on your instrument enough, you will develop a language that is articulate enough to be able to give richness and nuance to the story. This was big at the VCA when I was there.

VCA: Can you tell us about your favourite VCA memory? 

SS: Many. Brian Brown interrupting a lacklustre performance after 30 seconds and saying ‘well we’ve had enough of that shit haven’t we?’ and asking for the next band. Constantly saying that things needed more zip and shapes and coluors, words which I use both parodixically and seriously. Being dacked by Julien Wilson during a lecture, and standing up and leaving my pants down to give the Member for Elwood some quality face time with his constituents. My final recital was an awesome experience – it became a VCA epic, no budget, no manager thing with three drummers, two bassists, two vocalists, three horns, guitar, piano, didj, on a couple of pieces. For logistic reasons, there weren’t any rehearsals where everyone was there, so the recital was the first time, and it was a great moment in my life.

VCA: What advice would you give to students who want to pursue a career in your field?

SS: You can only do it because you love it, as music has to be its own reward. There are many other ways to make much more money and pull more chicks. To do this, first and foremost, you must respect where you have come from and find a way to play that on your instrument, and then diligently apply yourself to mastering the technical aspects of your instrument so that you have an individual sound. Trying to sound human is a great starting place, which is why I transcribe mainly vocalists. Also, don’t be afraid to turn things down that are going nowhere if your intuition tells you it isn’t right – life is way too short to waste time on rubbish. Serendipity will always be there, regardless of which sliding door you take, but your intuition will guide you towards a truer self-expression.

VCA: What are your goals for the next few years? 

SS: Keep getting better at everything. Get a drum kit. Learn another language. Make sure my children are comfortable in their skin and the world. Do some free diving. Earn a bloody living.

A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.