Striking a common chord
In September 2016, the Monash Art Ensemble embarked on a tour of Japan that included gigs at the Tokyo Jazz Festival and workshops and school visits in Iwate prefecture, a region devastated during the 2011 Great East Earthquake.
The Monash Art Ensemble is a musical group located within the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University. It was founded in 2012 by jazz pianist, Professor Paul Grabowsky, who is currently the Executive Director of the Monash Academy of the Performing Arts.
The ensemble is a project-based group that gets staff and students from the university working with some of Australia's leading musicians. In four years they have accrued considerable success, working with leading international jazz and improvising musicians, including US legends George Lewis and Dave Douglas, UK composer Django Bates, and the great Polish trumpeter, Tomasz Stanko. Their recording 'Nyilipidgi' with traditional songmen Daniel and David Wilfred from the Northern Territory was nominated for an ARIA award.
The ensemble performed as the Paul Grabowsky Quartet during their tour of Japan, led by Grabowsky on piano with Robert Burke on saxophone, Jonathan Zion on bass and Luke Andresen on drums. Their first gigs were at the Tokyo Jazz Festival, which also featured jazz giants such as Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny. One of the highlights of their shows was a collaboration with shakuhachi (Japanese flute) master, Masaki Nakamura.
From Tokyo, the ensemble travelled to Iwate Prefecture, one of the areas worst affected by the Great East Earthquake of 2011. In parts of Iwate the tsunami wave was more than eight meters high. More than 1600 people were killed and the damage was enormous.
With this in mind, the ensemble toured a number of schools in the area, providing stimulation for students and avenues for them to express their trauma through music.
'Jazz music is all about communication and the benefits of collaboration,' says Paul Grabowsky.
'It is a music of cultural diversity and improvisation, and therefore represents the most positive aspects of contemporary Australian culture.
'It is beneficial for all of us to share these things, particularly with the highly informed Japanese jazz audiences, but equally with children who have suffered loss and trauma following the devastation of the 2011 tsunami.'
The musicians also conducted a series of workshops with jazz and traditional musicians in Morioka, a city that was severely damaged during the earthquake. To complete the tour they performed at the Iwate Jazz Festival.
According to Paul, the tour was a great success and will help to develop future collaborations between Australian and Japanese musicians and music students.
'The benefits for the Monash Art Ensemble are many, apart from the experience itself, many useful contacts were made with leading figures in the Japanese jazz scene,' says Paul.
'The concerts were all well attended, and responses were uniformly positive. We are now in discussions regarding multiyear collaborations and exchanges, with bilateral projects looking well into the future.'
The project was supported by the Australia-Japan Foundation.