John Curtis is a jammer of long standing, along with considerable talent as a pianist and a self deprecating manner.
Q: How did you get into jazz? My early years (from age 5 to 14) were spent learning classical piano. It was a fairly insular activity, being unusual for kids where I grew up, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. We lived out of town so it was necessary to start practicing about 5.30am as I progressed so that my younger brothers and sister could also practice before we went to school. Then I discovered the guitar and rock music. In my final year at school and at university I played lead guitar in a couple of bands – at that time the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were all the rage. That was great fun but there was no exposure to jazz.
Once I finished university, music became just a personal hobby and a diversion from the rigors of a fairly busy work life. It wasn’t until I was almost retired that I began to move back into a more musical world. I did a fortnight’s course with the Australian Film Television and Radio School on composing for films and started doing some composition for TV commercials. At about that time I decided that I should learn to play jazz piano as it was a complete mystery to me. Having had very limited exposure to jazz it was like learning to play the piano from scratch again. I had several teachers over the initial few years – Chris Sommervelle, Steve Sedergreen and Mark Fitzgibbon –each of whom opened my eyes to different aspects of the wonderful world of jazz.
I quickly built up a collection of CDs, went to live performances and read everything I could lay my hands on about theory, techniques and performers. At the beginning I put in many hours of practice as I was very conscious of having started jazz late in life and I wanted to gain some reasonable degree of competency. Steve introduced me to the jam sessions at the old Dizzy’s in Swan Street Richmond and after a couple of years of extreme embarrassment due to my ineptitude I began to gain confidence. I formed a quartet and we played at various functions around Melbourne.
Q: So why do you like jazz?
I love the fact that it is essentially improvisational music as distinct from simply interpretational. I enjoy the idea that so much music can be created from a single tune such as a standard. Then there are the various genres and their characteristic forms, rhythms and harmonic structures – I enjoy this variety. I get a lot of pleasure out of reading theoretical discourses such as George Russell’s “Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization” and figuring out how to utilize them for improving one’s understanding and performance of jazz. I enjoy transcribing the solos of master players for the same reason.
The thing I enjoy most about jazz however is being able to perform it with other jazz musicians, hopefully to an appreciative audience. Related to this is the opportunity to get to know a community of musicians from all walks of life and from many different countries who all share this interest.
Q: Why do you like jam sessions? To me, jam sessions are a way of getting to meet other players and gaining performance experience in an informal environment. They can be a source of great enjoyment when things work (i.e. players understand and comply with the etiquette of the jam). I see them as being complementary to performing with a set group as the latter probably provides a better means of honing one’s performance of any given piece.
Q: What are your plans for 2012? I would like to continue to develop my performance skills individually and with the groups in which I play, try some new performance venues, do some composition, do some recordings and become more active at the various jazz festivals. I am also teaching jazz piano and would like to do more of this.
Q: Who are your favourite players? Piano: Frank Avitabile, Kenny Barron, Chick Corea, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Hiromi Uehara, Keith Jarrett, Winton Kelly, Brad Mehldau, Oscar Peterson, Michel Petrucciani, Enrico Pieranunzi, Jean-Michel Pilc, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Werner. Other: Ray Brown, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Astrid Gilberto, Joe Henderson, Antonio Jobim, Wynton Marsalis, James Morrison, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Tomasz Stanko.