The ‘Troubles’ – John Rae & Lucien Johnson interview

The Troubles Nonet

This e-interview was conducted over the 7th and 8th May 2012 – interviewer John Fenton for Jazz Local 32.    Those interviewed were John Rae (drummer, composer, arranger) and Lucien Johnson (alto & soprano saxophones, flute, composer, arranger).  ‘The Troubles’ is out on ‘Rattle Records‘ and was supported by Creative New Zealand.

Question: Time and place are important to both artists and audience and the interplay between them. I know that Wellington’s ‘Happy Bar’ has been a place to hear free improvised and experimental music for some time. The location and the vibe seem to be connected in this recording?

Lucien: I would say that Happy has been a largely supportive place and it’s nice to play on a stage, which is quite rare for jazz gigs in Wellington. Other than that though, since Happy stopped being a musician run place and turned into a business the vibe wasn’t quite the same – except for our Sunday nights! John may see things differently as he didn’t know it before, but I would say that any place that we have the capacity to virtually take over for the night we would see the same result. (A regular crowd of 50-80 enthusiastic and attentive listeners).

John Rae: All the above are true. Time and place are important. I’d been playing at Happy since I arrived in Wellington three years ago as the composer in residence at Victoria University and The Troubles are a part of a lineage. If there had been no Happy, Lucian wouldn’t have sat in with the group I was playing with, I may not have met Patrick, Dan or any of the other musicians who now make up The Troubles. But things move on. We now have another regular gig at Meow in Wellington and it’s going fantastically well. On a wider note, in Scotland we had a similar gig called Henry’s that ended up being an art’s council funded venue for jazz. We all know the financial difficulties of running a jazz gig and it is shameful that we have no problem funding classical venues to the tune of millions of dollars but can’t find what would be relative peanuts in comparison to support a jazz venue!

Question: While comparisons can be odious I was put in mind of an iconic and (at the time) controversial album that came out in 1969 “The Music Liberation Orchestra” Charlie Haden. Is that a fair comparison?

Lucien: I’m a big fan of the Liberation Music Orchestra, and the latter-day “Dream Keeper” is a personal favourite. I don’t know how aware John is of it though.

John Rae: It’s a wonderful comparison but purely accidental….

Question: You have no Carla Bley or Sam Browne on chordal instruments. Was that deliberate or happenstance?

Lucien: It was definitely a conscious decision. For a start there are no pianos at any venues in Wellington and we didn’t feel that there was anyone on piano or guitar who quite fit the bill anyway. We thought it would be more fun to have the strings acting as harmony players and/or have more open improvisations. I have avoided chordal instruments in my acoustic jazz groups except when I play with Jonathan Crayford.

John Rae: Yes it is. We like the freedom of not having a fixed harmonic instrument like guitar or piano.

Question: With a Nonet the sound palette and textures can have a big band feel. I sense that there has been serious writing and arranging done here. Is that my imagination or are there some well-arranged charts involved?

Lucien: There is very precise notation going on most of the time. The illusion of anarchy is due to familiarity and comfort with the material and the group.

John Rae: Lucian and I put a lot of thought into the writing. Personally I like my music to have a life of its own after my initial bit. So it’s important to write music that has an opportunity to breath and grow the more the musicians understand it. Or in other words, to treat the music with the contempt it deserves!

Question: How much of what we hear is free or changes based improvisation?

Lucien: A mixture, although when it’s free there is usually a tonal center present.

John Rae: A bit of both. I like musicians to dictate their own harmonic structures whilst soloing. Not always though and I have written tunes with changes but I hope that the improvisational aspects of my music allow the soloist to expand the harmonic possibilities as far or as simple as they want.

Question: I loved the way the band hinted at serious political topics but then appeared to instill humour and even an element is piss taking. Can you comment on that?

Lucien: John is quite political in this sense and contributes much of the humour (although musically Anthony’s percussion also adds this element). I prefer to leave both these things alone in music, without being extremely serious about it either. That’s just the way the group went with John’s personality present and I’m up for a laugh.

John Rae: I am a political animal but it’s important for me that people enjoy themselves whilst hearing my music. I’ve been around and played with ‘serious’ musicians most of my life and to be honest they now bore the pants of me. That’s not to say what I’m doing isn’t serious. It’s just that I’m over all the bullshit and let’s face it, in the current political climate if you didn’t laugh you’d cry.

Question: Is there anything you want to add?

John Rae: I love the jazz community here in New Zealand. It has some wonderful musicians and a lot going for it. On the other hand though it is really shit. No one seems to be asking the big questions. There is a lack of co-ordination, organization and vision. I look at what’s going on in Scotland and can’t help but compare it to here. No national jazz orchestra, no national jazz federation, jazz touring schemes, international profile etc and yet you can’t move for degree courses! As Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen the Danish jazz bassist said many years ago with regard to the Danish jazz scene, ‘it won’t improve until we stop making excuses’. The life of a jazz musician in NZ is incredibly hard. I believe it needn’t be soooo hard. It’s never going to be easy but through vision and togetherness we could make the living condition for jazz musicians a lot better. Ask any of the salaried brothers playing in any of the state funded orchestras if it’s possible!!!! I plan to have a gathering later this year of jazz musicians and people with an interest in the music to discuss some of the above and come out of it with a strategy on how to move the New Zealand Jazz scene forward. All together for the good fight….

Thanks guys that was an incredibly worthwhile exercise.

John Fenton – Jazz Local 32

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