Alister Spence - The harmonious meeting of minds

It may just be something to do with having a Scottish name but Alister Spence seems to have an affinity with Scottish musicians. Back in the early 1990s, the Sydney-based pianist joined forces with Glaswegian saxophonist Tony Gorman and his Australian wife, Sandy Evans, who had recently moved to Evans’ homeland, to form the band Clarion Fracture Zone. Over the next few years they would travel widely, playing gigs at the North Sea, Brecon and Glasgow jazz festivals, and record a series of albums that are regarded among the best examples of Australian jazz.

Spence’s latest trip to Scotland also finds him in the company of a Scottish saxophonist, Raymond McDonald of the Burt-McDonald group and Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, and indeed when The Herald caught up with Spence in Sydney, he was enjoying a post-gig malt with McDonald that the saxophonist had thoughtfully taken to Oz.

“I don’t know if it’s like minds,” says Spence, whose trio has gained an international reputation for its fresh approach to the well-worn piano-bass-drums jazz format. “It was the same with Tony and Sandy as it was with Raymond: we just seemed to get on and share similar thoughts on what we want to achieve as musicians. And that’s a pretty good basis for a working relationship, I suppose.”

Spence was a relatively late starter in jazz. Having begun by taking classical piano lessons at school, he found himself wanting to explore the sound possibilities of the instrument after listening to bands such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Yes in his teens. His father had a collection of jazz albums, including classic recordings by the Modern Jazz Quartet and Oscar Peterson, and the teenaged Alister investigated these but really fell in love with the idea of improvising and composing.

It was while on the Australian citizens’ time honoured, wider world- exploring year out, after a spell as a school teacher, that Spence became serious about jazz. He enrolled at the Dick Grove jazz school in Los Angeles and studied arranging, then moved on to the UK, where he worked for a year as composer-accompanist with a Dorset-based dance troupe and despite having his eyes opened culturally and socially in the alternative scene that pertained at the time in the south-west, he decided to go home and study jazz formally at Sydney Conservatorium.

“There was a lot of interesting music happening in Australia at the time, much more than I’d previously realised, and because I was thirty years old by now, it was a case for me of getting my head down and getting going,” he says.

To his formal studies he was able to add practical bandstand experience with leading Australian saxophonists Don Burrows and Dale Barlow, who had the distinction of working with Art Blakey and Cedar Walton in New York, and having honed his compositional skills with Clarion Fracture Zone, he began to develop a parallel career as a documentary and film composer, going on to be nominated for Best Score in the Australian Folk Critics and Australian Film Industry awards in 2002 for his soundtrack to the feature film Beneath Clouds.
“Writing for film made quite an impact on my jazz writing,” he says. “It’s a real discipline and it helped me to make my ideas clearer, more succinct.”

These days, although he works with a number of different line-ups, his main focus is his trio, which recently issued the impressive Far Flung double-CD, on which Spence’s dual liking for melodic, graceful music and more abstract sounds is accommodated in a way where one complements the other very naturally.

“They’re quite different approaches and Raymond was saying earlier that when we work together we cover a fairly wide area of music,” says Spence. “I’m not sure why. I didn’t set out to have these contrasting elements in my music. It’s just a reflection of the range of interests I have as a music listener as well as a player and I suppose I’m just drawing them all together into my sound.”

Spence met McDonald through the Scottish element of Clarion Fracture Zone suggesting they should meet up when Spence’s trio was visiting Scotland in 2006. They did a workshop that brought the trio together with Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra and then two years later McDonald invited the trio to join the International Big Band he was forming to play at Tokyo Jazz Festival. Subsequent tours in the UK and Australia and their 2011 CD, Stepping Between the Shadows, have cemented their relationship.

“It’s always easy to play with Raymond, probably because we share that dual love of the melodic and more abstract approaches. We’ll be working in a quartet with bassist Joe Williams and drummer Chris Cantillo this time, rather than the guys from my trio. They’re really stimulating players, always full of ideas, and I’m really looking forward to hearing how we sound together.”

From The Herald, February 6, 2013.

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