In the jazz concert Iron in the Blood, the quintessential 20th century American art form meets the seminal single-volume history of 18th century Australia.
Strange bedfellows at first glance. But for Sydney saxophonist and composer Jeremy Rose, jazz is “the perfect vehicle” with which to explore Australia’s convict past.
At heart, Rose says, the musical form of jazz and Australia’s history of white settlement share a common theme: improvisation.
“Paul Grabowsky [the jazz pianist and educator] once said, ‘Australia is an improvisation’ and he’s right. England tried to transplant its civilisation to the far reaches of what was the known world. But the climate and conditions, the flora and fauna – everything about the place – was so different and so far removed from their cultural connections. They had to improvise to make it work.”
Composed for an orchestra of 17 jazz musicians, Iron in the Blood is directly inspired by Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, the provocatively vivid, best-selling history of the convict era that hit the bookstores as Australia prepared to celebrate its bicentenary.
Hughes pulled no punches when it came to describing the violence, degradation and corruption of the convict era and The Fatal Shore was – and remains to this day – contentious stuff.
On his first reading of it, Rose felt that the blinkers had been ripped off. Everything he had been taught in school seemed like half-truth.
“I think Hughes wanted to demystify the origins of Australian cultural tropes and portray the vast array of experiences of the early settlers and the brutal hardship many of them faced,” Rose says. “He expressed how the fortunes of Australia were built on this forgotten era and on the near destruction of the indigenous population.”
Half a world away, Hughes’ book also had a profound influence on another jazz musician, the trumpeter-composer Wynton Marsalis, who went on to create a jazz oratorio titled Blood on the Fields, inspired by the Afro-American experience of transportation and slavery. It was the first jazz composition to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music.
“I felt that was incredibly ironic and it gave me permission in a way to attempt something like it from the Australian perspective,” Rose says.
Writing for a 17-piece group of talented young jazz musicians, many of whom he had studied and played with at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Rose set about composing a major narrative work based on The Fatal Shore and his own research into the music of the colonial era.
“I spent a lot of time studying Australian folk song at the National Library and I adapted and incorporated a lot of the melodic material into the score,” Rose says.
He also wove in the documented voices of early colonists and convicts in readings to be performed by actors Patrick Dickson and Michael Cullen.
Iron in the Blood was performed by Rose and the Earshift Orchestra and captured for a CD release in 2016. It was acclaimed by music critics.
“Rose has really honoured this awful chapter in our country’s history,” wrote John McBeath in The Australian.
“Rose’s composition and orchestration here is reminiscent not only of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Gil Evans but, at times, of Igor Stravinsky and Peter Sculthorpe,” wrote Andrew Aronowicz in Limelight. “It is a powerful mélange to which Rose has added much of his own as well.”
The latter review gives some indication of the eclectic nature of Rose’s composing style, which he says is rooted in his childhood.
“I grew up exposed to jazz from a young age through my parents’ record collection,” Rose says, “They were also into a lot of folk, blues and world music, too. But it wasn’t until I got into the Conservatorium that I started exploring contemporary classic music.”
His musical heroes? “Stravinsky, Messiaen, Peter Sculthorpe, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus … I listen to all types of music and I think it all comes out in my compositions.”
We’re lucky that Australian jazz embraces many influences, Rose adds.
“Jazz is like a sponge and we’re fortunate here because we can absorb anything. We can define our own identity and create a sound relevant to our own experience without the kind of bondage of tradition that you get in America.
“There is a vast array of styles co-existing in Australia, from the very contemporary to the very traditional,” says Rose. “Plus, you also have very definite spheres of influence that develop around musicians who have had a very strong influence on the direction we’re heading – people like [trumpeter] Scott Tinkler and [drummer] Simon Barker.”
Another key influence on Australian jazz is the music of The Necks (who played at the Riverside in February), the improvising trio of Chris Abrahams, Tony Buck and Lloyd Swanton.
“Their playing has a timelessness to it, like a long drive through the Australian landscape,” says Rose. “I think that sense of space has permeated through my composition.”
Australian jazz is also marked by the influence of the “beer barn” rock & roll culture, Rose says. “Oz rock is our organic form and a lot of today’s musicians grew up listening to it in the pubs. Loud bands, loud crowds … you can hear it.”
Jeremy Rose and the Earshift Orchestra play Iron in the Blood in the Lennox Theatre, 4pm, Sunday September 23