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MAKE IT NOW: the impro revolution

RealTime talks to Clayton Thomas

The NOW now festival was first held in January 2002, growing out of the fortnightly concerts of improvisation at Space 3 Gallery in Redfern, Sydney. The festival and Melbourne’s Make It Up Club have recently received a grant from the Music Board of the Australia Council for MAKE IT NOW, a mobile festival including both Sydney and Melbourne improvised music festivals and 6 interstate tours of national artists over the course of 2003. In this edited interview RT talked with Clayton Thomas (festival co-director with Clare Cooper) about the ethos behind the of the NOW now festival and the growing interest in improvised music.

A scene is born

We couldn’t find a venue so we did a concert in a basement garage and the people who ran Space 3 said why don’t you come and do a concert next month at our gallery. And we [Matt Ottignon, Felix Bloxom and Clayton Thomas] did our little trio and 150 people came, which is pretty unheard of for a free jazz gig in Sydney. Then I went away for 3 months to New York and became involved in the free jazz community there. That really initiated a whole lot of ideas in terms of how easy it is to form a community just through effort and, hopefully, if what you’re doing is positive and has the right spiritual aims people will gravitate towards it. For a few months there it was a little too focussed on the people Clare and I knew but gradually it’s ballooned. In January this year, everyone knew about The NOW now festival—the jazz scene, the electronic music scene—and suddenly there’s 100 new musicians we didn’t know. An important part of it was to break down cliques. So we have jazz musicians playing with experimental noise artists...that’s happened before but not with the same kind of open energy...the impact is creating new music. There’s not really a doctrine. Well there is, but it’s not like an aesthetic doctrine. We’re pursuing what happens when you improvise. So one night it’ll sound like a free jazz gig, like the Ornette Coleman Trio, and for the next set it might sound like somebody rolling a truck down a hill. Next week these artists will be collaborating. It’s just been the most organic thing.

What’s on

First we have the return of Jim Denley who’s been in Belgium for most of the year. Cor Fuller is coming from Holland. He’s a piano player and electronic musician. Mike Cooper is coming from the UK and he is a dobro slide guitarist, Polynesian music specialist and improviser. We have a contingent from New Zealand—Jeff Henderson the baritone and alto saxophonist is coming with drummer Antony Donaldson, one of the elder statesmen of the free jazz scene in Wellington, and a bunch of younger musicians. From Melbourne we’ve got bassist David Tolley [part of the MAKE IT NOW initiative], saxophonist Tim O’Dwyer, percussionist Will Guthrie and Tasmanian guitarist Greg Kingston. The country’s great improvisers are going to be here and all of them are going to be collaborating with Sydney musicians. One of the highlights of the festival will be Mike Nock the pianist playing with Anthony Donaldson and David Tolley, like no piano trio anyone’s ever heard. They’ve all been wanting to play together for 20 years. Then we’ll go down to Melbourne. It’s a mobile festival with 6 tours throughout the year of musicians from around the country doing the Sydney-Melbourne-Canberra leg and maybe Adelaide if possible. It will involve musicians from everywhere.

Connections - Make It Up Club

I guess Make it Up Club is an identical situation to Space 3. They do a regular series of improvised music concerts and a community has formed around a venue. If there’s a venue that’s specifically oriented towards something then people will find out who’s involved and suddenly you’ve got a community. They’ve been doing it for a couple of years. Tim O’Dwyer was up here doing a tour a couple of years ago and we met and shared some musical visions and through him we’ve met a whole bunch of Melbourne-based musicians. Just basically through our activities a whole bunch of people have become involved, either they relate to the Tasmanian scene or the New Zealand scene. Jeff Henderson runs the Space in Wellington–the exact same model as ours. It basically functions because of his energy. Three years ago he said we’re going to have an improvised music scene and he played there every night for 8 months and slowly people and his band got a little following and more musicians turned up and now it’s a 7 day a week venue. And it’s the creative hub of Wellington. Just through that the Wellington International Jazz festival is probably one of the most progressive jazz festivals in the world–there’s a community that’s looking for great music. I’ve just come back from 3 weeks there and it was mind blowing. The high level of music and creative content in such a small town is like frightening. And it’s all because the space has kind of demanded that everyone play—so they’re all teaching each other.

Why now?

I think we’re living in a really complicated time with the threat of institutionalised decision making, Like America deciding that everything is open to attack. I think improvised music and improvising in general, and the freedom to bring to your ideas and expression and 100% of your energy to something, is really important. People are looking for that challenge: music as a model for life. It’s liberated and difficult and disciplined.

the NOW now festival, Space 3 Redfern Sydney, Jan 13-18, 2003. For full program details go to

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 39

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