The renowned pianist and composer Paul Grabowsky sits down with us to answer some of our questions ahead of his national tour with fellow piano maestro Andrea Lam from 11 to 25 June.
You’ll be giving an improvisation on the Goldberg Variations for Musica Viva Australia. How have you approached this performance -- have you played through the work as written, or gone through ideas for how you might present the work in a different way?
I have done an improvised response to the Goldberg Variations a number of times over the years. The first time was at the Perth Festival in 2007 when I was asked to substitute for a Finnish jazz pianist who became suddenly unavailable. Having only 48 hours to prepare, I took a purely improvisatory approach, loosely hanging a 45-minute improvised performance on the harmonic structure of the Aria, but philosophically allowing the moment, the room, the audience and the situation to carry me. That has generally been the approach in subsequent performances. For the tour with Andrea, I have been playing all the variations, learning the Aria in all twelve keys, experimenting with different improvisatory styles, harmonic substitutions, time signatures and textures. It will be quite different, I imagine.
When did you first hear the Goldberg Variations? Do you remember your first impression of the work, and has that changed much in light of this current project?
I first heard the 1955 Glenn Gould recording in the 80s. Of course, I was bowled over by Gould’s radical pianism, his rigour and intensity. Since then I have heard numerous recordings and performances. I have particularly liked Andras Schiff and Andreas Staier, but there are so many interesting interpretations. My impression, as with everything of JS Bach, is that it is the work of someone fascinated by the very stuff of music. He is clearly having fun, demonstrating his unrivalled contrapuntal skills, while also creating moments of intense lyricism. It also presents some outrageous challenges in translation from the two-keyboard harpsichord to the piano.
You’ll be appearing alongside Andrea Lam, who will play the piece straight. Have you had the chance to discuss the work and concert with her? If so, what kinds of conversations have you had?
Not yet, but I’m looking forward very much to hearing Andrea play the Variations. It will be exciting to hear her over several performances. I expect my performances to change over the course of the tour as a result. That will be interesting.
Many jazz musicians have put their own spin on the Goldberg Variations, most notably the Jacques Loussier Trio recording. Have you listened to much of these in the past and have you done so in preparing for the concert?
I haven’t heard the Loussier version, which is probably just as well. There are versions by various jazz musicians that use each variation as a template, some quite fiendishly clever, but that is not my approach. I prefer to take a bird’s eye view.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the unique experience of hearing Bach’s work done two ways on the same night?
I hope they will be reminded that Bach was one of the greatest improvisers in the history of European art music, and that in experiencing the Goldbergs in this way, they will feel part of what is in my mind a tribute to a composer my teacher Mack Jost always referred to as The Master.
Has working on the Variations influenced or shaped other work you’re currently undertaking?
I’m certainly spending a lot of time at the piano, so that will inevitably influence my relationship with the instrument, which is a constant, yet ever-changing, dance. Spending time with Bach is essential for my mental calibration; I’ve made a habit of playing Bach throughout my life.
You’ve collaborated with many great artists over the course of your career, but perhaps the collaboration that springs into most peoples’ minds is the one you’ve had with singer-songwriter Paul Kelly. When did you first work together, and what has been most complementary or fruitful about your partnership?
We first played together in 1990 or 91 on a television show of which I was the musical director. In 2006 the Adelaide Cabaret Festival commissioned Meet Me in the Middle of the Air, a suite of Paul’s songs I arranged for the Australian Art Orchestra sung by Paul with Vika and Linda Bull. In 2018 invited Paul to join me in an intimate concert of his songs at Ukaria in SA, accompanied this time only by me, which then resulted in 2019’s Please Leave Your Light On, an album I am proud of.
When were you first introduced to jazz and was it something you were instantly enamoured with?
I was introduced to jazz as a teenager when I used to listen to it every weeknight on the ABC. I loved its marriage of mind and body, a highly-skilled musical language combining melody, harmony and rhythm in a forward-leaning, progressive and inclusive artform.
Who would you count amongst your biggest jazz influences of both the past and present?
There are too many to list. The entire jazz tradition has influenced me, along with many other kinds of music (especially classical music) and countless other inputs.
Who amongst the current jazz artists are you most excited by and why?
I am excited by many young Australian artists. I have had the good fortune to teach many of them over the years, and I have seen jazz and improvised music blossom into many beautiful and diverse strands all over Australia during the past forty years. It has been nothing short of miraculous.
Don't miss Paul Grabowsky's upcoming national tour with Andrea Lam from 11 to 25 June. Tickets are available here.