Best Australian jazz vocal album win

Geoff Hughes, of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, is one of Australia’s leading improvising guitarists and music educators. With his fellow musicians in the Michelle Nicolle Quartet, he won the Best Australian Jazz Vocal Album at the Bells Australian Jazz Awards on 16 May.  Here, he discusses the win, its significance, and his current and future projects. 

Interview by Paul Dalgarno

Geoff, congratulations on your win for Best Australian Jazz Vocal Album with the Michelle Nicolle Quartet. Can you tell me a bit about the winning album, A Flower is a Lovesome Thing

The album features some well-known and not-so-well-known compositions by legendary composer/bandleader Duke Ellington and his hugely talented co-composer Billy Strayhorn.

It was recorded back in 2015 by the ABC at Southbank, Melbourne, for ABC Jazz but wasn’t released until last year on ABC records.

The quartet comprises Michelle Nicolle on vocals, myself on guitar, Tom Lee on bass, and Ronny Ferella on drums. Michelle, Ronny and Tom are all sessional teachers in the MCM Jazz & Improvisation department.

What does it mean to win an award of this kind? Beyond the immediate kudos, what do you hope the award might lead to?

Awards in music can be difficult territory, although the Bells themselves are ostensibly chosen by a wide community of jazz and improvising musicians and industry people before reaching the final stages. We were nominated in 2013 for the previous album, too. That’s important affirmation for this band and what we are doing.

In the present day it is incredibly difficult to secure gigs in festivals in Australia, and even more so in Asia, and Europe. The US is practically out of reach. Australian acts are competing with a huge number of overseas artists; they usually have to travel further, and the support mechanisms for that are few. This award contributes to a track record of recognition, which, along with concert reviews and other recordings, will help us to that end.

Awards are like the icing on the cake, or a boost to the band’s CV when one is looking for an edge. There is also money involved – which helps to alleviate the expenses from previous projects!

Can you tell us a little about the dynamic in the quartet: what you bring to the party, what the others bring? How does it work in theory and how it all comes together in practice?

Michelle is the band leader, as the vocalist, but she, her partner Ronny Ferella and I, have been working in this format now for nearly 20 years. Tom Lee joined us in 2005 – not long out of University – and launched straight into a new album and tour with us in Singapore, Indonesia and Holland (at the Northsea Jazz festival ). He did a great job then and has been with us ever since.

The dynamic of this group is ostensibly a vocal-led interactive ensemble as opposed to a singer with backing musicians. That’s a really important part of the sound of this band, which treats even standard repertoire in an eclectic way.

The pressure on Michelle to become SINGER writ large is constant. But the quartet has sustained an interactive approach to every project nonetheless.

Some of the tunes on this album are around 80 years old, but we endeavour to create a sensibility more contingent with the things that have influenced us all as musicians in the 21st century – as well as expressing what we really love about classical jazz music (which is misunderstood by most people).

Michelle is the main driver as far as material and arrangements go – although a lot of work happens in rehearsal where ideas are tested, added or withdrawn. It’s also fair to say that, after 20 years of playing, much of our music has developed in performance. These days, our rehearsals are examples of economy in terms of time and frequency.

I have always loved the way that I am accepted as a texturalist in this band, rather than just an accompanist or soloist. It’s interesting to me to use the guitar as a way of arranging interesting textures and ambiences.

Do you get more pleasure out of playing alone or in ensembles? What are the pros and cons of each?

I do enjoy both, but playing solo is nerve-wracking. I’m currently working on a recording in my home studio – a solo project from which I hope to generate some live solo playing. I enjoy that in ensembles one has more material to work with straight away by virtue of the other players, as opposed to the sonic “tabula rasa” of solo playing.

The hardest thing about playing solo is dealing with your own silence. My view, though, is that investigating both solo and group playing to a deeper level can really benefit both. It’s really all about balancing constructive listening and musical independence.

What projects are you currently excited about? And what’s next for the quartet?

I have been lucky to have been part of two regularly working and touring groups over the last 15 or so years, and countless other freelance and one-off things. Those two groups are the Michelle Nicolle Quartet and also the late Allan Browne’s Quintet, which actually won theBells’ Best Small Australian Jazz Group last year for its recording Ithaca Bound.

I’m looking forward to the next step with the remaining four members of Allan Browne’s Quintet. I’m also looking forward to getting my solo project finished – it’s been going for a while.The Michelle Nicolle Quartet has been around the world and recorded seven albums together – but we still enjoy touring and the process of getting new album material together.

In 2014 we performed a whole concert of adaptations of music by Bach at Elder Hall in Adelaide, which was a fusion of a whole lot of interesting elements, including free improvisational and groove-based elements along with some more Bach-like contrapuntal conventions. I’m hoping we can get that project into the studio soon.


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Image: From left to right, Ronny Ferella, Tom Lee, Michelle and Geoff Hughes at “Live at the Village” Springfield in the Blue Mountains.