Stephen Pigram couldn’t be happier.
He’s just finished a school performance of Crossing Roper Bar with the Young Wagilak Group (songmen from Ngukkurr in South-East Arnhem Land) and the Australian Art Orchestra (led by artistic director, Paul Grabowsky), having come from Broome and headed to Perth by way of Beagle Bay, Roebourne, Karratha and Exmouth.
“It’s been brilliant, actually,” he says. “This is the first time I’ve been on the tour with the lads, I did some smaller stuff when they came to my region five years ago, but this is the first full tour I’m doing with them.
“I think it’s good taking it into the school because it gives the kids a look at pure kinds of music, like jazz, traditional singing and even my songs. And the fact that some it’s also improvised, it shows them real music, in a sense.”
A fusion of indigenous culture and contemporary jazz, Crossing Roper Bar first toured WA in 2008 with the late Ruby Hunter as vocalist. It’s a set work, but open to ongoing creativity.
“We’re trying to keep it quite open and changeable as the tour progresses,” Pigram explains. “We did a song today that I ran quickly past the lads and they picked it up pretty quick (laughs). It keeps a freshness in the group as well. And young Daniel, the singer from Ngukkurr, he’s written a new song on tour. He dreamt up a song at One Armed Point, he was telling us. He did that one last night in Broome and at the school today. So it’s going really well.
“It’s a very fluid kind of tour. There’s structures, obviously, but with the chance to improvise and create new stuff, which is great.”
Indeed Crossing Roper Bar is about telling stories, but it seems the journey itself becomes part of the story.
“It’s truly the top level of that kind of music. They’re great jazz musicians in their own right, the song men from Ngukurr, they’re brilliant at what they do with the traditional stuff.
“But to marry it together takes it out of its comfort zone. It brings it to another aural level.”
The contemporary rendering of ancient songs has precedents, of course, but the absence of template forms in jazz allows this music to soar with emotion rather than adhere to construct.
“The only attempt bringing traditional into mainstream in a collaborative sort of way was Yothu Yindi and Warumpi Band singing in language in a rock sense, but this lets the emotions come into the music more, being freeform jazz,” Pigram says.
“I think it really suits the traditional singing and song. And even my songs; I’ve played with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, The Black Arm Band and my own brothers’ band, but to take my songs and dress it up in this jazz interpretation it turns out beautifully as well. It sort of keeps you on your toes. They’re all your babies but you dress them up in different clothes for a change (laughs).
“And I’m learning their songs, too. It’s a great, evolving tour. It’s pure forms of music coming together.”
Crossing Roper Bar comes to the State Theatre Centre on Tuesday, October 29. Bookings through ticketek.com.au.
_ BOB GORDON