With a long list of accolades including winning the World Saxophone Competition in 2003, Jamie Oehlers is well and truly regarded as one of Australia’s leading jazz artists.
Along with a busy schedule of performances around the world, Jamie is also head of Jazz Studies at the prestigious Western Australian Academy of Music in Perth, where he is an inspiration for many up and coming musicians.
I caught up with Jamie recently for a chat about his musical journey and his approach to learning and practicing jazz.
NM: Where did you get started with music?
JO: I actually started on flute when I was about 10 years old. I had always wanted to play saxophone but my primary school only offered flute or trombone. I asked a few people and found out the flute fingering was similar to sax, so I started there and then 2 years later I begged my folks to buy me a saxophone.
Then I just happened to get into a music based high school with a bunch of great players. In fact literally about half of my high school year group are professional musicians now. Basically all of the guys I met at the school big band are now playing professionally.
So I kind of got lucky in that my peers were all really dedicated and were also big jazz fans. My folks weren’t particularly into jazz but some of my friends had parents who were really big fans. For example, one of my friend’s dad had every John Coltrane recording on vinyl! We used to just hang around there and listen to music and play. Really my love of jazz grew from there, and that led to tertiary study and then my own study.
NM: So you found a passion for jazz really early on then?
JO: I really did, probably from the age of 12 or so. It was really saxophone-driven at that time. Being a beginner on sax and listening to all these incredible players just drove me to want to develop skills so I could do some of it myself.
NM: Was Coltrane kind of like the “gateway drug” for you then with jazz?
JO: Yeah for sure, Charlie Parker too but definitely Coltrane.
NM: That’s interesting. A lot of players discover Charlie Parker early on but Coltrane can seem a bit overwhelming for younger players.
JO: I think it depends on what you get played. I had this problem with Sonny Rollins in the beginning. Somebody and played me “Sonny meets Hawk” which was probably Sonny Rollins most obscure album. It’s very pointilistic and avant garde in terms of the melodic approach. So I heard that at 13 and hated it! I absolutely thought it was the worst thing ever.
When I was around 16 or 17 someone played me the album “The Bridge” and then I was hooked on Sonny from that point onwards. So I think a lot of it has to do with which stage of a great player’s career you are opened up to initially.
For Coltrane I started with albums like “Relaxin” [Miles Davis quintet with John Coltrane].
NM: That’s a great point. For me it was “Soul Trane” but I think if you started at the other end of his output you might have a different reaction to him.
JO: Oh for sure!
NM: So off the top of your head could you suggest some albums that would be a great first introduction for players wanting to start exploring jazz?
I think from a saxophonistic point of view I would suggest Hank Moberley “Soulstation”. Thats a great one. Charlie Parker’s “The Cole Porter Songbook” is an incredible album. It’s a great recording and a really clear period in his playing.
Something like “The Bridge” by Sonny Rollins. And then for Coltrane maybe something like “Crescent”. It’s a little more modern but it’s such a great album.
NM: When you were a youngster then, you started listening to these albums and found you had a passion for jazz. How did you start to assimilate that into your own playing?
JO: I used to learn solos. I also got really lucky in that when I bought my saxophone, the guy that sold it to me said that I should really go and have lessons with Roger Garoud. Roger is just a phenomenal jazz saxophone player.
So I got really lucky because right from the word go he was playing me great music. Also he was telling me that I had to learn these great solos so I could begin to understand this amazing music. If you want to understand Charlie Parker, you need to play his solos and try to mimic the sound, the articulation, the time feel and the inflections.
So that was a really big thing for me for probably the first 15 years of my practicing career. I just learned solo after solo and really internalised them. I tried to learn a lot of them by ear, just off the recording.
I went through a period where I was learning full albums. I would do that by putting the album on once or twice a day and playing along with it. And then after three or four months I would know the whole thing.
I did that with “The Bridge” and I found, for me, that helped in building up a really strong fundamental base from which to make my own solos. I had a really good understanding of what it takes to develop good ideas as well as understanding sound, and time feel. So that’s been the biggest education for me – learning solos and having my own personal understanding of them.
NM: Would you pull the solos apart harmonically too to understand what’s going on?
JO: Yes, with certain solos I would. For something like a Lester Young solo it was not so important to look at the harmony, because for me it was about the phrasing. But for a Coltrane or Sonny Rollins solo, or for certain lines that were harmonically rich, then yes, I would work out the chords and work out what melodic device was being used. Then I would try to use that specific device in my own solos. Rather than just stealing a line or a lick, I would really look at the melodic device and try to incorporate that.
NM: When you were doing all of this transcribing, did you find that you naturally started to assimilate the players’ style into your playing – like when working on “The Bridge” for example?
JO: Definitely. I think I just started hearing music like that. Especially I think with Sonny Rollins, one of the things that influenced me was his rhythmic approach and the time feel and also his articulation. I found that when I was improvising, those inflections and idiosyncrasies were coming out in my playing.
I think after a while I had to stop doing as much transcribing, because there comes a time when you want to develop your own thing. I loved Sonny Rollins and Coltrane so much that every time I delved into their solos, I found myself falling into their way of playing. Further on down the track with your playing as you try to find your own voice, then maybe transcribing less is a good idea.
NM: You have had a fantastic education background going through WAAPA and then on to the Berkley in the USA to study further. Did you find there was much difference in the way jazz was taught in the USA compared to Australia?
JO: In general I don’t think so, but I had an amazing teacher at Berkley – Hal Crook. Hal has written a pile of educational books but he was also the Head of the Improvisation Department at the time. The way Hal approached learning and teaching was to pull apart the elements of what you were doing and work on them in isolation.
So for example, if there was one harmonic or melodic idea, it might be using the tritone pentatonic scale over the dominant chord, then he would get you to practice that against each chord slowly, so you could hear it. And then he would get you to play through tunes and every time you came to a dominant chord you would play that sound.
So rather than just trying to loosely do it every now and then, Hal was very systematic. Then within all of this practice he would get you to spend 15 minutes out of every hour just playing “I’m the spirit and the mood of the music” as he would call it. So that was a time to forget about all the stuff you have been practicing and just try to be part of the moment.
Hal’s approach was very improvisationally-driven. I don’t think I ever did a melodic pattern with him. It was all very driven by the specific devices themselves and getting you to improvise with them as much as you could. And also spending time removing the thought process and trying to get a musical flow happening.
NM: One of the things I love about your playing is your sense of melodic freedom. I think many players starting to learn improvisation struggle with being able to relax and let the music flow through their instrument, partly because of their preconceptions about improvising, and partly because of the link between their ears and their fingers. Do you have any suggestions for ways to overcome this?
JO: I think you hit the nail on the head when you said the link between the ears and the fingers. For me in the initial stages of learning the scariest thing was to let go of thinking about what chord I was playing on, and what I knew was going to work on that chord.
You need to just let go of all of this and be an improviser playing a melodic line over another colour base which is essentially what we’re doing when improvising. The chords are never set in stone anyway. If you’re playing with a great chordal accompanist they are always changing the chord structures.
So when I discovered that my ear was going to be my pathway to that freedom, to allow me to play anything I wanted over whatever it was I was hearing I became a much more free player.
It was terrifying initially but my aural skills have developed a lot over the last 15 years. A lot of that has come through playing free music. And when I say “free” I’m not talking in terms of avante garde screeching and honking, but playing melodic free music.
I have a trio called “Lost and Found” with Paul Grabowski on piano and Dave Beck on drums. We try and play music that makes melodic sense but without preconceived ideas. So, if Paul plays a chord, I don’t have any intellectual or academic knowledge of what that chord is. All I have is an aural recognition of that sound. I then try to hear a melodic idea that will work and get that link between my ear and my fingers happening to play it.
When I started working on that a lot, it fed into the way I played on jazz standards, original compositions and more chordal based tunes. I didn’t want to be bound by the rules so much – the harmonic and melodic rules of what scale worked with what chord. I just wanted to be able to hear a melodic idea and insert that over the chordal base.
That approach has allowed me to break away from the restrictive thoughts of “I had better not play that because it doesn’t work on that chord”. I think if you play anything with a strong melodic sense you can break a lot of rules and the music still sounds really beautiful.
That link between your ear and fingers is vital. I practice this in various ways. Something I do with my students is we play a line but add notes one at a time. So we have to aurally memorise the phrase as it gets larger and larger.
Or I will just throw on a recording that I haven’t heard before and play over it just to really try to get that flow happening between what I hear and the pitches I perceive and what’s coming out the end of the horn.
And if you really concentrate on the feeling of each note on the saxophone when you’re practicing long tones and things like that, it’s actually quite easy to develop relative pitch where you hear a note and you know where that note is on your instrument. For me that has been the key.
NM: Tell me about the Paper Tiger album project. How did that come about?
Paper Tiger is myself, Steve Magnusson on guitar and Ben Vanderwal on drums. We have been playing together a lot in different formats over the last 15 years or so. I’ve actually done quite a few projects without bass. Nothing malicious against bass players! I just found the unique combination of instruments interesting. So if there is no bass the sonic texture inspires me to play differently.
So Steve, Ben and I were having a jam session one day playing some tunes and we decided that this was something we all enjoyed doing, so we started writing material for some gigs and then decided to record. There are a few unique things for me about this album.
All of the songs are really short. There’s 15 songs on there and most are about 2-3 minutes. I play soprano for the first time on an album and there’s also some overdubbing. All of the songs are very melodically driven. We wanted to highlight the songs essentially on this album.
NM: So what’s on the horizon for you in 2015?
JO: I’ve just won this Creative Development Fellowship which will allow me to go to New York and record a new album with Eric Harland [drums], Reuben Rogers [bass] and Paul Grabowski [piano] at the beginning of next year. That’s a project we have performed with a few times in Australia and always had an amazing time.
Eric is probably one of my favourite drummers in the world. It’s really inspiring and feels so free to play with those guys. I’m really looking forward to that and then I’ll be spending a few months promoting the album towards the end of the year. We will be coming to the UK to do some shows hopefully in September.
NM: So Jamie. If you had time to practice just one thing, what would that be?
JO: Sound! To be honest, at certain times of the year my time is really limited and if I only have 20 minutes to practice, I’ll do a set of long tones, and then maybe play a melody really slowly just to work on my sound quality and intonation along with my ear – connecting my ear to my instrument.